We and They in Colonial America | Facing History & Ourselves

We and They in Colonial America

Learn how race and racism evolved within North America’s first European settlements with the stories of two African Americans who secured freedom in colonial Virginia.  
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At a Glance

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English — US


  • History
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Special Note

White Supremacist groups have claimed that Anthony Johnson, a black forced laborer who became free in 17th century Virginia, was the first legal slave owner in the British colonies that became the United States. That claim is historically false and misleading. It is important to note the following regarding Johnson’s life and the beginnings of slavery:

  • The development of the institution of slavery in North America was complex. In the 17th century, the enslavement of Africans co-existed with indentured servitude, and laws governing both were in flux.
  • Anthony Johnson was, himself, enslaved by an English settler upon being brought to North America.
  • When Johnson was brought to North America, status and power in colonial Virginia society depended much more heavily on one’s religion or whether one owned property than it did on skin color or a notion of race.
  • For a period of time in the 17th century, some of the enslaved, like Johnson, were able to gain their freedom, own land, and have servants.
  • By the end of the 17th century, however, colonies began to make legal distinctions based on racial categories; the legal status of black people deteriorated while the rights of white European Americans increased. Johnson’s descendants, who were classified as black, were stripped of the property they inherited from him.
  • A system of slavery in which enslavement was lifelong, hereditary, and based solely on race was established in the colonies in the beginning of the 18th century.

Why are White Supremacists making these claims? They are doing this for several reasons, including to promote denial of the history of chattel slavery and its impact, particularly on Black Americans. For more information, see the following articles:

For at least 400 years, a theory of “race” has been a lens through which many individuals, leaders, and nations have determined who belongs and who does not. The theory is based on the belief that humankind is divided into distinct “races” and that the existence of these races is proven by scientific evidence. Most biologists and geneticists today strongly disagree with this claim. They maintain that there is no genetic or biological basis for categorizing people by race. According to microbiologist Pilar Ossorio:

Are the people who we call Black more like each other than they are like people who we call white, genetically speaking? The answer is no. There’s as much or more diversity and genetic difference within any racial group as there is between people of different racial groups. 1

Some historians who have studied the evolution of race and racism trace much of contemporary “racial thinking” to the early years of slavery in the colony of Virginia, in what is now the United States.

When the first Africans arrived aboard a Dutch slave ship in 1619, status and belonging in colonial Virginia society depended much more heavily on one’s religion or whether one owned property than it did on skin color or any notion of race. The stories of two Virginians of African descent—Anthony Johnson and Elizabeth Key—help to illustrate this fact.

Anthony Johnson, who arrived from Africa in 1621, was initially enslaved by a Virginia family from England, but he was permitted to obtain his freedom sometime in the first few decades after his arrival. It is not clear how he did so, but at the time those held in slavery were sometimes granted freedom by their owners, or, more often, they were allowed to farm a plot of their owner’s land, sell the crops, and purchase their freedom from the profits. By 1640, Anthony had married a woman named Mary (who was also enslaved), started a family, and acquired a sizeable farm of his own. When a fire destroyed much of the Johnson plantation in 1653, local officials noted that the Johnsons were “inhabitants in Virginia above thirty years” who were respected for their “hard labor and known service,” and they excused Mary and the couple’s two daughters from paying taxes for the rest of their lives. The ruling allowed the family to rebuild. In issuing the ruling, officials ignored a Virginia law that required that “all free Negro men and women” pay special taxes.

Historians T. H. Breen and Stephen Innes offer one explanation for the successes of African Americans like the Johnsons:

The foundation of liberty in mid-century Northampton—for whites as well as blacks—was property. Without land and livestock, without the means to support a family, no one could sustain freedom. Property gave men rights before the law; it provided them with an independent identity that translated into a feisty self-confidence in face-to-face contacts. Indeed, in this [rudimentary] social system, in which people placed extreme emphasis upon personal independence, upon material gain, and upon aggressive competition, property became the only clear measure of another man’s worth. And while the great planters of the Eastern Shore exploited dependent laborers, they also recognized the prerogative of almost everyone to take part in the scramble for wealth. It had not yet occurred to them to cut the Johnsons [and other people of African descent] out of the game. 2

Like Anthony Johnson, Elizabeth Key was also able to secure her place as a free member of seventeenth-century Virginia society. She was born in Virginia in 1630, the daughter of an enslaved African woman and a British man who served in Virginia’s House of Burgesses, the colony’s legislature. After her father’s death in 1636, Elizabeth’s godfather, a prominent politician, took the child into his home.

At first Key’s godfather treated her as an indentured servant, but in time he sold her to a judge in Northumberland County, Virginia, who considered her his permanent slave. When the judge died in 1655, Key sued his estate for her freedom. She claimed that she was an indentured servant who had been sold wrongfully into slavery. Her enslavement was wrongful, she argued, because her father was an Englishman and under British law (which then ruled the colonies), she inherited his status in society. He was a free person and therefore so was she. And, finally, she provided a certificate of baptism as proof that she was a Christian, which meant under British law that she could not be enslaved. In 1662, the House of Burgesses was both Virginia’s legislature and its highest court. When it ruled in Key’s favor, she became a free person.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the success of Elizabeth Key, Anthony Johnson, and other Virginians of African descent, Virginia’s laws and traditions began to change in the 1660s. The House of Burgesses began to pass laws that favored people of European descent and restricted the freedom of those of African descent. Shortly after Key’s case was settled, the same lawmakers who decided that she had been wrongfully enslaved passed several new laws that prevented any other person of African descent from making a similar argument. One of the new laws stated that whether the child of an Englishman and an African woman was slave or free was to be determined solely by the mother’s status. If she had been enslaved, her child was a slave. Slavery was now a “permanent” and inheritable condition for people of African descent. Another law reinforced that idea by declaring that conversion to Christianity did not make an enslaved person free. In the spring of 1670, Johnson died and left 50 acres of land to one of his sons. In August, an all-white jury ruled that the colony could seize the son’s inheritance because he was “a Negro and by consequence an alien.” These laws and rulings ensured that white property owners would have a permanent work force—one bound to them by law, custom, and, increasingly, race.

Connection Questions

  1. What qualities gave someone status and power in seventeenth-century Virginia? How had that changed by the 1670s? Why might the Virginia legislature have restricted the freedom of people of African descent? What role do you think economics played in these new restrictions?
  2. Were Anthony Johnson and Elizabeth Key included in Virginia’s universe of obligation during their lifetimes? What people and institutions played a part in defining the colony’s universe of obligation?
  3. What do you think the jury meant when it labeled Anthony Johnson’s son an “alien”? Where does that label place Anthony Johnson’s family in relation to Virginia’s universe of obligation? What consequences might a person who is labeled an alien face?
  4. What do the stories of Anthony Johnson and Elizabeth Key suggest about the role of law in creating the “other”? How might laws about the “other” give legitimacy to discrimination?
  5. What questions does this reading raise for you about the notion of race and its effect on society? How does it complicate your understanding of the history of racism and slavery in North America? 

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History & Ourselves, "We and They in Colonial America," last updated August 2, 2016.

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