The First American Slave Owner Was Black…And How This Doesn’t Change Anything (Part 1)

For years, this was my only source on the beginning of US history. Broad and logical-sounding, it resonated, but I didn’t yet have the time or the inclination to find out more…what really was there?

Turns out, quite a bit!

“Religious Freedom”
The timeline starts, according to Wikipedia, in 1619, in the newly founded town of Jamestown, founded by English settlers. A Spanish ship is conquered and the enslaved Africans are brought into the community and deemed free by their Christian status, because under English custom, a christian cannot be a slave.
So they join the ranks of the indentured servant class, who work for a landowner on a fixed contract of 7 years or so, upon which time they will be free men who have earned their positions in the new colony and may in turn become landowners themselves. How egalitarian.

Fast forward to 1640, 20 years later, and it’s already apparent that there are exploitable holes in this egalitarian system. In a case that echoes the “subtle” prejudice and stereotyping of cases today, 3 servants escape. 2 get off with warnings and slight extensions of their servitude of a couple of years, and 1 is sentenced to life-long servitude, essentially slavery. Guess which one is African.

The document of John Punch's sentencing
The document of John Punch’s sentencing

So John Punch is officially an African American slave, but he’s not really called that yet, and his case is simply punishment for a crime, and let’s conveniently ignore that it’s an unfair punishment according to race. This is still a totally free system so God bless America…right?

…Until 1654. Another John, John Cassor, is declared a “slave” in an ownership battle between his black owner and his white neigbour. Racists like to point to this as if this proves that black people somehow invented American slavery, and thus white people are guiltless. Obviously, that’s nonsense. The first recording of a case is not the first actual happening of a practise, and the court and other significant powerful forces are unlikely to all be black African Americans.

In fact, this source ( heavily suggests that people of African descent were already being treated as slaves through official census records failing to report surnames, marital statuses, and most pointedly, dates of contract completion dates, without which, it can be assumed servitude is expected to go on indefinitely. In times when only the privileged have access to writing and reading, this exploitation is almost too easy.

Anthony Johnson (presumably)

It’s likely that Anthony Johnson, himself a legitimate free man under the indentured servitude system, was simply targeted for perpetuating the same system of undefinitely extending a servitude period as his neighbours in an attempt to disadvantage him against his neighbours. (Or simply to use his name as the first official case on the records, and create some plausible deniablity for racially biased slavery systems, one might think, if one was cynical, and didn’t live under a rock regarding current shady practices by the media and courts, and therefore logically concluded that this might have been even easier to pull off pre-literacy and pre-internet.)

Now how does sexism come into this toxic mix of capitalist landowner exploitation, xenophobia, racial bias and profiling I hear you ask? Glad you asked! Of course, sexism finds its way into this exploitative mess, through the case of Elizabeth Grinstead, a woman borne of a (legally) enslaved black woman (no citizenship), and a white English landowner. Against what honestly sounds like all odds, her parenthood is proved and supported by witnesses who vouch for her and against her white and married English father, and, combined with her Christianity (which is still being considered important at this stage), allow her to escape being sold as a slave for any longer than her (already extended) indentured servitude had already entailed.

Conveniently pre-captioned!

Of course, this is a massive flaw in an exploitative system: how are you going to exploit women by sexually terrorising them, if you also have to also be responsible for the (mixed-race) children that this spawns? How are you going to use the patriarchy to win in this scenario? By cheating! Literally! Simply define a law called “Partus Sequitur Ventrum” that means it’s all the mother’s responsibility to determine the status of your illegitimate child, and boom! You’re no longer responsible for this mixed race child, and you’ve also gained another slave, indefinitely!

So a few more laws fit in now around the gaps, to really cement the structural inequality to make sure no one’s getting up and out of this system again easily, they pass laws against inter-racial marriage (1691), they define everyone who is NOT a christian as a slave in 1705 (a powerful reversal of the original “if you are a christian you’re not a slave” principal of the English founding colonies), and a petition from Quakers in 1688 against slavery on moral and religious grounds is ignored and then conveniently lost for 150 years, so it’s no far stretch to say other stands against the system were similarly quietly erased from history.
Then the history books like to start talking about Abolition, as if it’s a simple storybook process: beginning and nasty set up of some little intolerances of new and scary skin colours, middle and the brave northern abolitioner’s storm the system and break it down, end and Obama is elected and everyone holds hands. If you’re reading this, you know it’s not, tune in next time for my Abolition piece. Obviously this is not a complete and perfect history course about the start of Slavery in the US and the America’s, but I have found it useful to summarise my findings of this initial period of slow encroachment and codifying of bigotry and removal of liberties in the early American colonisation period.

From, and originally found here: