As I went about my day this morning I came across a Facebook post from a friend that nearly made my eyes roll out of my head. The post linked to a 6th-grade quality “listicle” entitled “21 Things About America That Most Americans Don’t Realize.” I typically ignore these sorts of things, especially lists like this one that provide absolutely no evidence to back up their so-called historical facts. But a commenter on said friend’s post remarked about his pleasure in seeing number five, which is posted above, and I had to jump into the debate. I am no expert in 17th century history and I probably should have stayed out of the fray, but there’s a larger point about American history than needs to be made here.
Blacks have their own troubling role in slavery’s legacy. African elites in Western and Central Africa happily complied in helping advance the slave trade, which Henry Louis Gates explains in the New York Times. And there were some free blacks who owned slaves in America. Anthony Johnson is perhaps the most well-known black slaveholder. Born in Africa but sent to Virginia in 1821, Johnson worked as an indentured servant until 1635 or whereabouts. By the 1650s he was a well-to-do property owner with his own indentured servants. In 1653, one of those servants, John Casor, sued Johnson and argued that his term of service had expired. The courts found in 1655 that Johnson still “owned” Casor and that he be returned to Johnson immediately. This case was the first one in which a court found that a person who had not committed a crime could be legally held into lifelong servitude–enslavement–under British law. This is where claims emerge that Anthony Johnson was America’s first slaveholder.
The reality of the situation is much more complex, of course.
With regards to British law, the first legally enslaved African was John Punch, who was sentenced to lifetime servitude after attempting to run away to Maryland at some point in either late 1639 or early 1640, fifteen years before Johnson took ownership of Casor. Sociologist Rodney D. Coates of Miami University, in an analysis of the racialization of early American law cases, accurately concludes that “John Punch’s name should go down in history as being the first official slave in the English colonies” since he was the first one to be legally enslaved through English law (333). Anthony Johnson was not the first slaveholder in America and, by extension, the first slaveholder in America was not black. It’s also puzzling why so many biographies of Johnson (see here, here, and here) would omit such an important historical fact if it is actually true that he was the first American slaveholder.
This debate over who was the first slaveholder in America exposes the sorts of biases Americans have when it comes to understanding their own history.
All too often we Americans are taught in our White Anglo-Saxon Protestant history textbooks that the beginning of “American history” started with the Virginia Company’s “Mayflower Compact” at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619 and later Pilgrim settlements in Plymouth, Massachusetts. History textbooks portray the growth of what eventually became the United States as a growth spreading from East to West, with America’s origins in the thirteen colonies followed by steady expansion westward. But settlement patterns in the present-day United States actually started in the opposite direction! According to sociologist and historian James Loewen, “people…discovered the Americas and settled it from west to east. People got to the Americas by boat from northeastern Asia or by walking across the Bering Strait during an ice age. Most Indians in the Americas can be traced by blood type, language similarity, and other evidence to a very small group of first arrivals…either way, afoot or by boat, evidence suggests that people entered Alaska first” (20). Moreover, following Columbus’s discovery of the “New World” in 1492, Spanish colonists settled in places like present-day New Mexico, Texas, and Florida before other Europeans settlers went to Virginia, Maryland, and Massachusetts. When they came to the New World, these Spanish colonists enslaved its indigenous populations and later began importing African slaves to the New World following Ferdinand and Isabella’s approval of African slavery in 1501. St. Augustine, Florida, was a hub for the Spanish slave trade. And it was all legal!
Clearly there were people living in the Americas thousands of years before any Europeans came over, although we often ignore that reality. For example, even though my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, is celebrating 2014 as the 250th anniversary of the city’s “founding,” there was an advanced society hundreds of years before 1764 right in our backyard that was larger than London at one point in time. After 1492, there were non-British Europeans who colonized the Americas and traded slaves long before the British came over. To ultimately suggest that Anthony Johnson was the first legal slaveholder in what would eventually become the United States is utter poppycock, no matter what any viral internet garbage tries to tell you.