by Malcolm Macdonald, July 23, 2013
July 24th marks the anniversary of Anthony Johnson acquiring 250 acres of land in Northampton County, Virginia during the summer of 1651. Anthony Johnson was a free black man, brought to the colony aboard the James in 1621. He had been captured in his native Angola. When he was initially sold to a white tobacco planter named Bennet, Johnson was known only as Antonio. Antonio was indentured to Bennet, the common practice of the time, meaning that he could work his way out of servitude after a period of hard labor (often seven years). Until the mid-1850s, in the American colonies, though indentured servants were often treated as roughly as slaves, the indentured servant could earn his or her freedom and there was no clear practice of lifetime slavery.
Expansion of tobacco plantations like Bennet’s farther and farther inland within Virginia proved to be an intolerable depletion of land and resources for the native Powhatans. On Good Friday, 1622, after an adviser to the Powhatan chief was murdered by an English settler, the Powhatans overran several farms and small communities. At the Bennet plantation, Antonio was one of only five survivors among 57 residents.
In 1623, Mary, identified on the ship manifest simply as “a Negro,” arrived in Virginia aboard the Margaret. She was indentured to the same plantation as Antonio, the only woman there. Within a few years Antonio had taken the name Anthony Johnson, Mary had taken him as her husband, and by the mid-1630s both worked off their indenture to become free blacks. The usual practice of the time granted freed indentured servants a year’s provision of corn, double apparel, necessary tools, and a small cash stipend.
Anthony and Mary Johnson remained married for 40 years, rearing four children to adulthood, quite a feat for the 17th century, let alone a black couple in Virginia. Anthony Johnson’s July, 1651, acquisition of 250 acres of land on Virginia’s eastern shore, near the Pungoteague River in Northampton County, would make him significant enough within the history of early Virginia, but the story does not stop there. Along the Pungoteague the Johnsons ran cattle and horses, raised hogs, and cultivated a tobacco crop. The Johnsons retained close ties to other free blacks in the area as well as trading with neighboring white plantation owners. At least one of his sons took a white woman as his wife. Anthony Johnson employed his own servants, including a black man named John Casor. In 1653 Casor demanded his freedom from Anthony Johnson, believing he had completed his indentured servitude. Johnson claimed there was no proof of the indenture. Casor left the Johnson farm and went to work for a white colonist named Robert Parker. Anthony Johnson brought suit in the Northampton County court. In 1655, the court’s decision read in part: “The saide Mr. Robert Parker most unjustly keepeth the said Negro from Anthony Johnson his master. It is therefore the Judgement of the Court that the said John Casor Negro forthwith returne unto the service of the said master Anthony Johnson.”
The court established no end point for Casor’s servitude to Johnson, effectively making him the first person in the American colonies to be legally designated a slave for life and Anthony Johnson became the first court anointed slaveholder.
The slave system soon morphed into one of white power. By the 1870s Anthony Johnson had amassed nearly a thousand acres of land. At his death, Virginia courts ruled that being black Johnson was not a citizen; therefore, his lands could not be inherited by his children.