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The Legacy of Anthony Johnson: From Slavery to Legalizing Slavery

Anthony Johnson's journey from an Angolan indentured servant to a Virginia planter-class tobacco farmer is a complex and intricate tale of events.

Anthony Johnson, a Black man who lived in colonial Virginia from 1621 to 1675, accomplished a remarkable feat by attaining his freedom and joining the planter class in Virginia. This ascent brought him wealth, power, and social status, but it came at the cost of another Black man, John Casor, whom the Virginia Supreme Court ruled in 1655 would be a slave for life.

The relationship between Anthony Johnson, a Black man, and slavery in colonial Virginia was complex, as Johnson saw it as a means of gaining wealth and social status within society.

Johnson was born in Angola in the early 17th century and was sold into slavery at the age of 21.The Portuguese established a colony in Angola in the early 17th century, which increased their access to slaves from the region. It is likely that Anthony Johnson was one of many captives from Angola brought to Virginia on a Portuguese or Dutch slave ship in 1621.Anthony Johnson was an indentured servant and possibility a member of the Kingdom of Ndongo.

John Casor was an indentured servant owned by Anthony Johnson
John Casor.

The Kingdom of Ndongo was a wealthy and prosperous kingdom, with a sophisticated political system, a well-organized army, and a thriving economy based on agriculture, trade, and mining.The kingdom's wealth and strategic location made it a target for European powers seeking to expand their empires in Africa. Ndongo initially resisted Portuguese attempts to establish trade relations, but in the late 16th century, the Portuguese launched a series of military campaigns against the kingdom, ultimately conquering it and establishing a colonial presence in the region.

The majority of indentured servants and enslaved Africans brought to Virginia during this time were from Angola, The Kingdom of Ndongo and they were typically sold to wealthy planters who needed labor for their tobacco plantations.Virginia was one of the first British colonies to establish a large-scale plantation economy, and tobacco quickly became a major cash crop. The demand for labor to work on these plantations was initially met by indentured servants, but as the supply of European laborers dwindled, planters turned to the slave trade to meet their needs.

As an indentured servant, Johnson was valuable as men from the Ndongo Kingdom of Angola were highly valued because of their agricultural skills. Most men in Ndongo were involved in agriculture, particularly the cultivation of yams, cassava, and maize.

After working on a tobacco plantation as an indentured by a white man named Edward Bennett, Johnson earned his freedom in 1640 and eventually became a successful tobacco farmer. He also had some legal rights that many Blacks did not have, such as the right to own property because he was a freed black man. Despite being a free black man, Johnson's status as a landowner was unusual and often contested by white colonists who claimed that he was not entitled to own land or hold indentured servants.

In colonial Virginia, the planter class was a small but powerful group of wealthy landowners who dominated the economy and politics of the colony. Planters were typically white men who owned large plantations and controlled the production of tobacco, the colony's most important cash crop.

Being a member of the planter class was important because it conferred significant economic and political power. Planters were able to accumulate vast amounts of wealth through the labor of enslaved Africans and indentured servants, and they used their wealth to influence the colonial government and shape its policies.

Planters also held significant social status, with a lifestyle that included fine homes, luxurious furnishings, and lavish entertainment. Their social status was further reinforced by their ownership of enslaved people, which was considered a sign of wealth and prestige in colonial Virginia.

Working on a tobacco plantation
Working on a tobacco plantation.

John Casor, made a slave for life by a 1655 court ruling, was owned by a freed Black man Anthony Johnson, member of the Virginia planter class.

John Casor was an indentured servant owned by Anthony Johnson who sued Johnson for his freedom after running away to Maryland. Johnson contested Casor's claim to freedom, and in 1654, a planter named Robert Parker helped Casor secure his freedom by claiming that he was being held illegally as an indentured servant. The case went to court, and in 1655, a judge ruled that Casor was Johnson's property and could be held as a servant for life, effectively legalizing slavery in Virginia.

After the court ruled in 1655 that John Casor was legally bound to serve Anthony Johnson for life, he remained in Johnson's custody as a slave. It is not clear what happened to him after that, as there are no further historical records of his life. It is possible that he continued to work as a slave on Johnson's tobacco plantation until his death.

The irony of the situation lies in the fact that Johnson, who had himself experienced the injustice of being treated as property and denied the full rights and freedoms of a human being, was contesting Casor's claim to freedom and arguing that he was entitled to hold him as a slave for life. This decision helped establish a legal precedent for slavery in Virginia that would endure for centuries, granting slave owners near-absolute power over the lives and bodies of their slaves, reinforcing the idea that people of African descent were inferior and thus suitable for forced labor and enslavement.

The legal and social structures of the time made it relatively easy for people to acquire and maintain slaves, particularly if they were already members of the landowning class. Johnson may have seen slave ownership as a natural and legitimate part of his role as a successful farmer and member of the community, rather than as a contradiction of his own experiences as a former slave.

Johnson saw slavery as a means of gaining wealth and social status within the colonial Virginia society. By owning slaves, he would have been able to increase his labor force and profitability as a tobacco farmer, and he may have seen this as a way to solidify his position as a landowner and member of the community.

Tobacco plantation
Tobacco plantation.

In the 17th century, the planter class in Virginia made up only a small percentage of the population, generally estimated to be around 5% or less. However, they held a significant amount of power and influence due to their control over land and the labor of enslaved Africans and indentured servants. However, it is estimated that by the mid-17th century, there were several thousand free Black people in Virginia, and a small number of them were able to acquire property and become part of the planter class making Anthony Johnson a unique complex case of color, wealth, power and class.

The life of Anthony Johnson, a Black man who lived in colonial Virginia from 1621 to 1675 was a remarkable feat of attaining his freedom and joining the planter class in Virginia, which brought him wealth, power, and social status. However, his success came at the cost of another Black man, John Casor, whom the Virginia Supreme Court ruled in 1655 would be a slave for life.

This historical account of Virginia's plantation economy, tobacco cultivation, and the legal and social structures that made it easy for people to acquire and maintain slaves, particularly if they were already members of the landowning class makes Anthony Johnson unique and complex case highlights the intersection of color, wealth, power, and class in colonial Virginia, where a freed black man could become a wealthy landowner and member of the planter class, while also advocating for and benefiting from the enslavement of others.

Note: It is not known what Anthony Johnson or John Casor real names were before they were brought to Virginia as indentured servants. It was common for African slaves and servants to have their birth names changed by their captors or owners.Also the case of John Casor is not well-known today, it played a critical role in shaping the history of slavery in America and laying the foundation for the legal and social structures that would support it for centuries to come.

Anthony Johnson a Black man in colonial Virginia, achieved freedom, joined the planter class but he gained it at the cost John Casor, a Black man who was made a slave for life by the Virginia Supreme court in 1655. The planter class and Anthony Johnson in colonial Virginia were prime examples of classism in action, where a small group of wealthy landowners controlled the economy, politics, and social hierarchy of society, while exploiting the labor of enslaved Africans to maintain their wealth and status even though one member of the Planter Class was a Black man.

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