Selling Poor Steven

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In the 1640s John Casor was brought from Africa to America, where he toiled as a servant for a Virginia landowner. In 1654 Casor filed a complaint in Northampton County Court, claiming that his master, Anthony Johnson, had unjustly extended the terms of his indenture with the intention of keeping Casor his slave for life. Johnson, insisting he knew nothing of any indenture, fought hard to retain what he regarded as his personal property. After much wrangling, on March 8, 1655, the court ruled that “the said Jno Casor Negro shall forthwith bee returned unto the service of his master Anthony Johnson,” consigning him to a lifetime of bondage. Given the vulnerable legal status of servants—black and white—in colonial America, the decision was not surprising. But the documents reveal one additional fact of interest: Anthony Johnson, like his chattel, Casor, was black.

Though the vast majority of black owners held no more than a few slaves, some had as many as seventy or eighty.

Johnson’s life in America has something in it of a rags-to-riches tale. He appears to have arrived in Virginia in 1621 and is noted in the early records simply as “Antonio, a Negro.” Though the general-muster rolls of 1625 list his occupation as “servant,” twenty-five years later he had somehow accumulated a respectable surname and two hundred and fifty acres of land on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Surviving both a fire that damaged their plantation and the protracted legal tiff with Casor, Anthony and his wife, Mary, moved to the Eastern Shore of Maryland in the early 1660s, their contentious slave in tow. In 1666 Johnson leased a lot of three hundred acres, on which the prosperous landowner remained until his death. As for Casor, he stayed on as a “servant,” witnessing Mary Johnson’s will of 1672 and registering his own livestock brand in the same year, apparently something of a colonial success story himself.

By the early eighteenth century the Johnson family had disappeared from the historical record. But in the hundred and fifty years that followed, many other black slaveowners imitated Johnson’s example, and for a variety of reasons. According to 1830 U.S. census records, 3,775 free blacks—living mostly in the South—owned a total of 12,760 slaves. Though the vast majority of these owned no more than a few slaves, some in Louisiana and South Carolina held as many as seventy or eighty. Nor was the South the only region to know black slaveowners. Their presence was recorded in Boston by 1724 and in Connecticut by 1783. As late as 1830 some blacks still owned slaves in Rhode Island, Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey, and New York, as well as in the border states and the District of Columbia.

The motives that guided black slaveowners were many and complex. Most of them appear to have “owned” slaves for the benevolent purpose of protecting family members from a society that habitually regarded free black people with deep suspicion. But a significant minority did so for the same reasons that motivated white slaveowners: commercial profit and prestige. Slaveowning on the part of this latter group was a strategy for assimilation in a mistrustful and potentially explosive social atmosphere. Not only were black slaveowners sometimes reviled by other blacks, but they were equally feared by the white middle class as potential usurpers. Whatever our stereotype of the American master in the antebellum era, neither the commercial nor the humanitarian black slaveowner easily fits it.

A crucial prerequisite for slaveowning was, of course, freedom. At the time of the 1830 census, nearly one out of eight blacks in the United States was a “free person of color,” whether by birthright, manumission, or the purchase of his or her freedom. Whatever their improved legal status, free people of color still experienced many of the same difficulties that slaves did. The laws differed according to period and region, but free blacks of the antebellum era were generally forbidden the right to vote, to bear arms, and to testify against whites in a court of law. They were often denied credit, consigned to segregated churches, prevented from establishing permanent residences, and even denied licenses to sell liquor. They often lived side by side with slaves—on occasion marrying them—and their white neighbors tended to see them as a potentially disruptive force. Most free people of color were poor. They lived, as the historian John Hope Franklin has put it, in a state of “quasi-freedom.”

There was often deep mistrust between free and enslaved black people. Free blacks only rarely expressed open sympathy for slaves. Most tended to guard jealously the few privileges they had secured; generally, the higher they rose, the more advantages they hoped to protect. And though free people of color might embrace racial equality as a worthy ideal, many used their intermediate status to exploit those at the bottom. What’s more, such tensions, as the historian Ira Berlin has noted, in Slaves Without Masters , “often divided free Negroes from one another as much as it divided them from whites.”