Was the First Slave Owner in America a Black Man?

Anytime one engages in an examination of race relations, there is the risk of opening wounds. Even though no one alive today was ever enslaved in the United States, tensions that have their roots in that blot on our history remain very much alive. It can make one wonder if we can ever get over that completely. If we cannot discuss it dispassionately, then the answer is no.

The prevailing belief is that the overwhelming majority of slave owners in America were white. And this is correct. What might be less known is that one of the first slave owners in America was a black man.

From the University of California at Berkeley:

Anthony Johnson was one of the first African Americans to have finished his services as an indentured servant and become a landowner on the Eastern Shore and slave-owner himself … In 1654, John Casor became the first legal slave in America. Anthony Johnson, previously an African indentured slave, claimed John Casor as his slave. The Northampton County rule against Casor, and declared him propter for life by Anthony Johnson.

Could it be that the first person to own a slave in America was someone who had suffered under indentured slavery himself and had been freed, only to enslave others of his race? And in this case, not just for a period of time as an indentured servant, but permanently as property?

If Berkeley and other sources have it right, that is the case. While it would be an exaggeration to state that a black man introduced slavery to America, one particular black man was certainly an early-adopter of the practice.

From Slate:

“The first slave owner in America was black.”

Is it true?: It depends on how you parse the timeline. Anthony Johnson, the black ex–indentured servant whose bio opened the first episode of our podcast, did sue to hold John Casor for life in 1653, and the resulting civil court decision remanding Casor to Johnson’s ownership was (as historian R. Halliburton Jr. writes) “one of the first known legal sanctions of slavery” in the colonies. That phrase—“one of”—is crucial. The ship Desire brought a cargo of Africans from Barbados to Boston in 1634; these people were sold as slaves. In 1640 John Punch, a runaway servant of African descent, was sentenced to lifelong slavery in Virginia, while the two European-born companions who fled with him had their indentures extended. In 1641, the passage of the Body of Liberties provided legal sanction for the slave trade in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. (N.B.: The image in the meme above isn’t of Anthony Johnson. There were no photographers in 17th-century Virginia.)

Whether or not Anthony Johnson was the first American slaveholder, he was certainly not the last black person to own slaves. “It is a very sad aspect of African-American history that slavery sometimes could be a colorblind affair,” writes Henry Louis Gates Jr. on the Root, in a fascinating piece about the history of black slaveholders in the United States. Some black slaveholders bought family members, though this humanitarian arrangement doesn’t account for all of the history of black slaveholding, as Gates points out.

The ultimate point here is not whether this man was actually America’s first slave owner – he was, at least, one of the first. This serves to reveal how the issue of slavery is not as clear cut as liberals would have you believe it is. It was not just that ‘white people enslaved blacks’ and therefore whites owe blacks a ‘debt that can never be repaid’. Blacks enslaved, whites enslaved, blacks were slaves, whites were slaves (especially the Irish). As an act that has always been practiced, and still continues to be practiced today, it is one of the most useful to those who wish to ride on the backs of others with a saddle of guilt and anger. Get off my horse…work hard and buy your own.

Source: University of California at Berkeley

Source: Slate

Source: Infowars

Source: Rethinking Life


Leave a Reply

Pin It on Pinterest