The principal character in Joyce Maynard’s 1992 novel “To Die For” said that if you look too closely at a black and white photograph, all you see are a series of black dots on a white background and then added that one must step back in order to see the big picture. That, of course, is the problem today with any discourse in regard to slavery . . . all one is supposed to see are the dots of Southern black slaves toiling away in a field of cotton on their white master’s plantation. If you step back, however, you will see a far broader picture of slavery and black life in the South, both free and slave.
One person to see such a scene was the late Dr. Thaddeus Wilber Tate, Jr., a history professor at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. In 1957, at the height of America’s civil rights movement, Dr. Tate wrote a lengthy research report for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation entitled “The Negro in Eighteenth Century Williamsburg.” His in-depth study probed virtually every aspect of black life in Williamsburg and colonial Virginia that provided an excellent view of black history in general during that period.
Contrary to the highly colored picture that the New York Times’ “1619 Project” has attempted to paint in which it falsely claims that “the barbaric system of chattel slavery” began almost instantaneously when a “cargo of 20 to 30 enslaved Africans” were brought to Virginia in 1619, the facts reveal a far different picture. Dr. Tate’s well documented research demonstrates that it took another thirty to forty years years for black labor in colonial America to develop from indentured servitude in which the servant was able to gain his or her freedom to a system of service for life that became known as slavery. His study also shows that rather than the August 1619 arrival of black Africans being the greatest single event in American history, another event took place in Virginia a month earlier that was of far greater significance. This was the official convening of the Virginia Company of America in Jamestown on July 30 by Governor Sir George Yardley . . . the first meeting of a duly elected governmental body in America.
The facts pertaining to the event that took place a month later also differ widely from what the “1619 Project” purports. The actual story involves the landing of the English privateer “White Lion” that had been raiding Spanish colonies in the West Indies under a Dutch letter of marque. Among the ship’s spoils were twenty black slaves had been captured abroad a Portuguese slave ship bound for New Spain. The “White Lion’s” captain, John Jope, struck a deal with Governor Yardley to exchange the twenty slaves for needed provisions . . . thus making this the first black Africans to set foot in the British colonies. While the “1619 Project” claims this event immediately brought black slavery to America, the facts reveal that since there was no slavery in the colonies at that time, the twenty blacks were included in the existing group of white indentured servants and like their white counterparts, they were allowed to purchase their freedom after varying periods of servitude.
Several days after the arrival of the “White Lion” a second English privateer, the “Treasurer” that was originally from Virginia, also arrived in Jamestown with about thirty more black slaves. This was the same ship that had carried Pocahontas on her visit to England three years earlier and was now raiding the Spanish colonies in Latin America under a letter of marque from Duke Charles Emmanuel of Savoy. The ship’s captain, Daniel Elfrith, also tried to barter some of the slaves for provisions, but only one was taken and he too became an indentured servant. During the next few years only eleven additional black Africans were brought to Virginia on English ships. One of these was a former Angolan named Antonio who had also been taken from a Portuguese slave ship and arrived in 1621 aboard the “James.” He was indentured to the plantation of Edward Bennett where he was later baptized and took the name Anthony Johnson.
Another arrival in Jamestown the following year was a black woman named Mary who arrived on the ship “Margaret and John” and she was also indentured to the Bennett plantation. Anthony Johnson and Mary soon married and after several years they had managed to purchase their freedom. By 1650, the couple owned a two hundred fifty acre tobacco farm in Northampton County, with two of their sons owning additional adjoining farms of a hundred and fifty acres each. The Johnsons also had one black and four white indentured servants, and when the black servant, John Casor, tried to be released from his indenture in 1655, the county court decreed that he was “owned for life” by Johnson, the first such ruling by a colonial court. Therefore, Casor actually became America’s first true slave . . . and one owned by a another black man. So much for the “1619 Project” narrative.
Therefore, actual slavery, the ownership of a person for life, did not come into general practice in colonial America until about 1660 and until that time even the word “slave” had no legal meaning in the laws of the American Colonies. It was also about such time that the number of Europeans who were willing to go to the Colonies as indentured servants began to rapidly decline. Prior to then, approximately three hundred thousand white men and women had traveled to America under indenture. Most skilled workers managed to work off their indentures in four or five years, while unskilled laborers had to work for seven or more years to gain their freedom . . . with virtually all the black workers falling into the latter category. The drastic change in labor conditions in the latter part of the Seventeenth Century brought a dramatic rise in the need for slave labor, as well as the development of a domestic slave trade by merchant shipping interests in New England and New York to meet that need.
By the start of the Eighteenth Century, Northerners engaged in the slave trade had brought over twenty-five thousand Africans back to the the Americas via what was known as the triangle slave route. In this, ships would leave from ports in the American Northeast loaded with rum and other trade goods and cross the Atlantic to ports in western Africa. There they would exchange the goods for slaves from Arab, Portuguese or black African slave traders and then set sail sail for Latin America and the West Indies where they would sell some of slaves, as well as purchasing molasses to produce more rum. Other slaves were then carried to ports in the South, with any that remained being returned to the North for sale.
Within half a century, the number of black Africans in the British colonies had quadrupled and would continue to multiply, with the number reaching almost a million by the time America gained its independence. Much of the slave trade came to a halt in 1808 after the United States Congress, at the urging of President Jefferson, passed the act to end the importation of slaves. However, the trade to Latin America by Northern shippers continued for many more years, as well as some illegal shipments to the Southern States until the practice was halted by the Union blockade during the War Between the States.
Even though the importation of slaves had mainly ceased by the the early 1800s, the black birth rate had kept pace with the number of imported Africans and within another half century, the number of black residents in the United States had risen to about four and a half million, with most of these living in the South. Of this number in 1860, over half a million were free, with a little over two hundred and twenty-five thousand in the North and over two hundred and sixty thousand in the Southern States. Even though the vast majority of blacks in the South were slaves, the idea conveyed today that virtually all were toiling endlessly in fields of cotton and sugar cane under brutal conditions, with only a privileged few allowed to perform simple domestic chores, is also a false picture.
Dr. Tate’s study shows that blacks, both free and slave, were employed in a wide variety of jobs beside field labor and simple housework, ranging from apothecaries, barbers and carpenters to shoemakers, tailors and violin makers. Even domestic workers served in a number of capacities, such as bakers, butchers, cooks, coachmen, gardeners, nurses, seamstresses, valets and waiters. While a slave’s living quarters were spartan to say the least, their clothing either homemade or items discarded by their masters and their food extremely simple, they were housed, clothed, fed and given needed medical attention, which was generally far more than what was received by a majority of the immigrant workers in the North. Slaves also had about as much free time as the average white worker in the South, namely Saturday evenings, Sundays and a few major holidays such as Christmas and New Year’s.
Furthermore, very few slaveholders resembled the villainous, whip-wielding slavedriver Simon Legree portrayed in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” It is, of course true that slaves were punished for breaking rules, and that whipping was a standard form of such punishment, but corporal punishment was a standard legal practice for many crimes until well into the Twentieth Century, as well as in the American military and schools. Besides, seriously injuring or incapacitating a slave would have been counter productive, as not only was their continued service needed but slaves represented a major financial investment for their owners.
One serious disadvantage for blacks in colonial America after their transition from indentured servant to slave were the laws governing their lives. Up until the latter part of the 1600s, the laws and restrictions were the same for black and white servants, but in 1680 new, separate codes were enacted for blacks. These provided different trial procedures and harsher punishments for criminal acts. While these laws contravened the English legal system, the fear of slave insurrection and the idea that blacks had to be regulated more severely made the colonial authorities feel such laws were necessary. The “Black Code” of 1680 covered three basic actions . . . leaving the master’s property without permission, lifting a hand against a white person and hiding or resisting capture after running away, with conviction of the last crime being punishable by death.
Eleven years later it became illegal for an owner to free a slave and in 1691, a law was passed that denied black slaves a trial by jury. Then, in 1723, a far more comprehensive statute was enacted that banned all assemblies of slaves that were not permitted by their masters and denied slaves the right to possess firearms. The section pertaining to guns also extended to free blacks unless they were property owners or members of a militia. The new laws even forbid a slave convicted of the capital crime of plotting or carrying out a rebellion the right to be visited by a clergyman before execution.
The almost century-long road to freedom, if not equality, for blacks in America began with the American Revolution and ended with the War Between the States. There were also some in both the Northern and Southern Colonies, particularly the Quakers, in the latter half of the Eighteenth Century who felt that slavery degraded both the master and slave and advocated emancipation. An example of this appeared in an article in the “Virginia Gazette” of 1752 that called for “full religious tolerance, full admission of all foreigners, and the freeing of the Negroes in order to make Virginia a land of liberty and moderation.” When the Colonies took up arms against Great Britain in April of 1775, an order issued three months later officially excluded free blacks from enlisting in the Continental Army. However, this was rescinded at the end of December, and during the War upwards of five thousand blacks, both free and slave, served in the Continental Army and Navy. While there were rumors that slaves could gain their freedom by enlisting, the law required that blacks had to produce evidence of freedom before being accepted. While some slaves were recruited illegally, most who served did so with their owners permission, and were expected to be returned to bondage when the war ended.
The sense of liberty created by the Revolutionary War caused a wave of freedom to finally sweep away virtually all slavery in the Northern States and its effect reached as far south as Virginia where, in 1783, the State Legislature voted to free slaves who had served in the War. During the 1780s, some other Southern States passed special acts that conferred freedom on slaves who had performed meritorious service, such as James Armistead, a slave who had served as a spy for the Marquis de Lafayette, and had reported the defection of General Benedict Arnold. Despite such events, the institution of slavery in the South did not come to an end until 1865, and it took another century for the general exclusion of black Americans from white society to be brought to a legal conclusion throughout the nation. Admittedly, there is still more to accomplish in order to achieve a true sense of full racial equality in the country, but to claim that American history began with black slavery 1619 and that black Americans are still the victims of so-called “systemic racism” is an utter falsehood that flies in the face of factual history.