|The Terrible Transformation
Racism & Slavery
“We sometimes imagine that such oppressive laws were put quickly into full force by greedy landowners. But that's not the way slavery was established in colonial America. It happened gradually -- one person at a time, one law at a time, even one colony at a time.”
Terrible Transformation, PBS.org
The transformation from indentured servitude (servants contracted to work for a set period of time) to racial slavery did not happen over night. There were no laws regarding slavery early in Virginia’s history.
One of the few recorded histories of an African in America that we can glean (get) from early court records is that of “Antonio the Negro”, as he was named in the 1625 Virginia census. He was brought to the colony in 1621. At this time, English and colonial law did not define racial slavery; the census calls him not a slave but a “servant”. Later, Antonio changed his name to Anthony Johnson, married an African American servant named Mary, and they had four children. Mary and Anthony also became free, and he soon owned land (over 300 acres), cattle and even indentured servants of his own. By 1650, Anthony was still one of only 400 Africans in the colony among nearly 19,00 settlers. In Johnson’s own county, at least 20 African men and women were free, and owned their own homes.
Think about: How was Anthony Johnson’s life different from what you may have thought about lives of African in early colonial America?
In 1640, the year Johnson first purchased his property, three servants working for a farmer named Hugh Gwyn ran away to Maryland. Two were white and one was black. They were captured in Maryland and returned to Jamestown, where the court sentenced all three men to thirty lashes - - a severe punishment even by the standards of 17th century Virginia. The two white men were sentence to an additional four years of servitude – one more year for Farmer Gywn followed by three more for the colony. But in addition to the whipping, the black man named John Punch was ordered to “serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural life here or elsewhere.” John Punch no longer had a hope for freedom.
Virginia’s Slave Codes
It wasn’t until 1661 that a reference to slavery entered into Virginia law, and this law was directed at white servants – those who ran away with a black servant. The following year, the colony went one step further by stating that children born would be bonded or free according to the status of the mother.
The transformation had begun. The status of blacks in Virginia slowly changed over the last half of the 17th century. With the Slave Codes (laws) of 1705, the status of African Americans would be sealed. The black indentured servant, with his hope of freedom, was increasingly being replaced by the black slave.
1705: “All servants imported and brought into the Country . . . who were not Christians in their native country . . . shall be accounted and be slaves. All Negro, mulatto and Indian slaves within this dominion . . . shall be held to be real estate (property). If any slave resist his master . . . correcting such slave, and shall happen to be in killed in such correction . . . the master shall be free of all punishment . . . as such an accident never happened.”
Why do you think slave codes developed? What purpose did they serve?
What impact would the 1705 code have on slaveholders and enslaved persons?
The code, which would serve as a model for other colonies, went even further. The laws imposed harsh physical punishments, since enslaved persons who did not own property could not be required to pay fines. It stated that slaves needed written permission to leave their plantation, that slaves found guilty of rape or murder would be hanged, that for robbing or any other major offense, the slave would receive sixty lashes and be place in stocks, where his or her ears would be cut off, and that for minor offenses, such as associating with whites, slaves could be whipped, branded, or maimed.
For the 17th century slave trade in Virginia, disputes with a master could be brought before a court for judgment. With the slave codes of 1705, this no longer was the case. A slave owner who sought to break the most rebellious of slaves could now do so, knowing any punishment he inflicted, including death, would not result in the slightest reprimand.
Chronology of Slave Codes
The shift from indentured servitude to racial slavery in the British colonies is evident in the development of the colonies’ laws:
1639 Virginia: The first laws to exclude “Negroes” from normal protections by the government were enacted.
1640 Virginia: Law passed making it illegal for blacks to have guns.
1643 Virginia: Law passed permitting the use of black, not white women to work as field laborers.
1664 Maryland: The first colonial “anti-amalgamation” law is enacted. Other colonies soon followed Maryland’s example. A 1691 Virginia law declared that any white man or woman that married a “Negro, mulatto, or Indian” would be banished from the colony forever. Also in the same year, Maryland passed a law making black servants for life.
1667 Virginia: Christian baptisms would no longer affect the bondage of blacks or Indians, preventing enslaved workers from improving their legal status by changing their religion.
1682 Virginia: A law establishing the racial distinction between servants and slave was enacted.
Think about: Would the southern plantation system have survived or thrived without slave labor?