Reparations Are Sheer Madness: America’s First Slave Owner Was Black – as Were Others
By Paul Dowling
“The deposition of Captain Samuel Goldsmith taken (in open court) 8th of March Sayth, That beinge at the howse of Anthony Johnson Negro (about the beginninge of November last to receive a hogshead of tobacco) a Negro called John Casar came to this Deponent, and told him that hee came into Virginia for seaven or Eight yeares (per Indenture) And that hee had demanded his freedome of his master Anthony Johnson; And further said that Johnson had kept him his servant seaven yeares longer than hee ought. . . .” – From a deposition taken for the Northampton County Court, which ultimately ruled in favor of Anthony Johnson, a black freeman, that Johnson owned Casor as property, the first time a permanent state of slavery was created in America, circa 1654/1655
“I never mean (unless some particular circumstance should compel me to it) to possess another slave by purchase: it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted by the legislature by which slavery in the Country may be abolished by slow, sure, & imperceptible degrees.” – George Washington, who, after the Revolutionary War, began to support the gradual abolition of slavery
The Human Situation: In the End, People Are Just People
From the ancients to the moderns, men and women of every origin, extraction, and pedigree have not changed substantially down through the ages; what it means to be a human being remains constant across mankind, because of one simple fact: In the end, people are just people. The scientific truth is that there is only one race, the human race. Skin color holds about the same biological significance as a person’s eye color when it comes to the objective reality of the human genome. And various ethnic groups throughout history have blended and intermarried with other groups, without any biological impediments. Indeed, all people inhabiting the world today stem from common ancestors that arose in Africa, according to the fossil evidence discovered by Raymond Dart on December 24, 1924. Dart’s discovery means that the earliest known human progenitors are from Africa, and that all people living today are descendants of those earliest-known members of the humanity.
Warts and All, People Share the Same Shortcomings Across Times and Places
Slavery, at its root, is not a “racial” issue but a human one. Slavery has been practiced by all civilizations in one form or another throughout history. Most black-skinned people who came to America as slaves were sold to white slavers by black slavers. It has been reported of the slave-trading business belonging to Sir Alexander Grant and Richard Oswald that, “[b]etween 1749 and 1784, Grant and Oswald’s employees in Sierra Leone sold over 12,000 African men, women and children to Slave Ships. They did not capture the people themselves. Instead, they imported guns, alcohol, metal and cloth to exchange with local kings who brought captives to sell at [the trading post on] Bance Island.” All of this history is important for people to know, for, as Cicero has so aptly stated, “Not to have knowledge of what happened before you were born is to be condemned to live as a child.” Unfortunately, there are too many adult children who have never received a proper education with regard to the true history of slavery. There are also many who, although they say they vigorously oppose slavery, are silent with respect to the Muslim world’s daily slave auctions in places like Libya or the everyday use of slave labor in places like China. One of America’s many virtues is that America has banned slavery, whereas many cultures have not come close to doing so; but the ignorant – not knowing their history – are often difficult to engage in thoughtful debate, because of the fact that they do not share the same breadth of historical knowledge as their more learned peers, due to the incomplete nature of the revisionist history into which they have been indoctrinated.
Where Does It All Stop: Should Black People Pay Reparations for Slavery?
In a personal conversation, this author asked a socialist Progressive who should pay reparations for slavery. “Anyone whose family owned slaves, of course,” was the reply. The follow-up question was this: “Should Barack Obama or Kamala Harris pay reparations, since their ancestors owned slaves?” After a pause, a begrudging answer in the affirmative was given, when the woman said, “Well . . . I guess they should pay reparations, if their families really benefited from slaves.” However, the next question proved to be quite offensive to the lady’s sensibilities: “Should black families whose ancestors owned slaves be required to pay reparations?” The uninformed and judgmental response was that blacks did not own slaves, so raising such a question was sheer madness – even racist!
The truth, however, is perhaps stranger than fiction, because forced servitude did not even exist in the English colonies of North America, until a former indentured servant – a black freeman – sued for the right to own his indentured servant as property, circa 1654. This case was the first recognition by a law court in the American colonies that one person might own another as property. And the reality of black masters continued until the end of the Civil War, in 1865, when a white president in the person of Abe Lincoln would succeed in freeing their slaves.
Anthony Johnson, Himself a Former Bond-Servant, Issues Contracts of Indenture
Anthony Johnson was one of the first 20 blacks to settle in the British colony of Virginia. When Johnson arrived, he was an indentured servant who had been captured and sold under contract into a condition of servitude against his will. Notwithstanding this fact, “Johnson served out his contract and went on to run his own tobacco farm and hold his own indentured servants, among them [John] Casor.” So, the situation was this: a black freeman, having been set free from his contract of indenture by 1623, eventually decided to embrace his right as a freeman to issue contracts of indenture to would-be immigrants, whereby Johnson would pay their passage on a ship to Virginia in exchange for seven years of labor. At the end of this time, his indentured servants were to be “granted 50 acres each . . . so they could raise their own tobacco.” This was similar in practice to Biblical slavery, per Exodus 21:2, which existed only in the form of indentured servitude and which stipulated the forgiveness of all debts (and therefore the release of indentured servants, all of whom were working as debt slaves) “in the seventh year.” Johnson, after contracting five bond-servants of his own, “was granted 250 acres as ‘headrights.’”
A Court Uses the Case of John Casor to Create Servitude for Life in Virginia
Johnson, a black freeman, controlled a good-sized plantation where he was master over at least five bond-servants. In 1654, “Johnson sued his neighbor in a case that would change America’s history forever. Johnson’s servant, John Casor, claimed he . . . had worked several years past the terms of his indenture for Johnson and was now working for Johnson’s neighbor, Parker. Johnson sued Parker, stated that Casor was his servant ‘in perpetuity,’ and the courts ruled in his favor.” Thus, permanent enslavement “was brought to North America in 1654, when Anthony Johnson, in Northampton County, convinced the court that he was entitled to the lifetime services of John Casor, a Black man. This was the first judicial approval of life servitude, except as punishment for a crime.” This history seems not to be in common currency among the graduates of America’s most venerated colleges at the time of this writing. It would appear that even history teachers coming out of Ivy League schools do not universally possess knowledge of the fact that slavery in the British colonies was actually instituted as the result of a lawsuit brought by a black freeman. This is important history to be familiar with, if one is to speak credibly on such topics as reparations for slavery.
Sidebar: On the Topic of Slaveholding Among America’s Founders
While some of America’s Founding Fathers may have owned slaves, they were not slaveholders by virtue of their skin color; there were indeed free black Colonials – later to become black Americans – who owned slaves as well. George Washington, in his possession of slaves, was not out of step with many of his black peers; indeed, Washington’s behavior on this point was neither superior nor inferior to others across so-called “racial lines,” which only goes to show that slavery really is a human problem, not a skin-color problem. It is also worthy of note that, upon drafting his will at age 67, George Washington“included a provision that would free the 123 enslaved people he owned outright. This bold decision marked the culmination of two decades of introspection and inner conflict for Washington, as his views on slavery changed gradually but dramatically.” It is important to give credit to Washington for this change in his thinking. All human beings grow and learn throughout life, and the Father of the American Republic was no different. He was a life-long learner whose views evolved throughout his life – a fact that should be admired and celebrated.
Much of Washington’s growth was likely due in no small part to the service rendered the Continental Army by his personal slave and body-guard, William Lee, who “served with Washington throughout the Revolutionary War. He was responsible for organizing the general’s personal affairs, including his voluminous papers, and holding his spyglass. As the attendant to a prominent figure, Lee became a minor celebrity. Postwar visitors to Mount Vernon occasionally sought out the ‘famed body-servant of the commander-in-chief.’” Washington was forced to struggle with the issue, during the war, posed by many patriots of the North who “had begun to question how they could call for freedom and enslave others.” In comparison to other Virginians of his day, Washington was certainly ahead of curve in his thinking when it came to slavery. It is an important lesson, if one hopes to understand history on a deep level, that people who lived in the past ought to be judged in line with the traditions and values of the cultures within which they existed. This is called putting oneself in someone else’s shoes. It does, however, require emotional intelligence to do this, the teaching of which seems to be in short supply in history classrooms today.
Also worthy of celebration is the fact that Thomas Jefferson halted the importation of slaves into the United States, per his enactment of the 1808 Clause of the Constitution during his presidency. Jefferson was an energetic opponent of slavery, believing slaveholding to be contrary to Natural Law and going so far as to write a clause prohibiting slavery into his original draft of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson referred to slavery as a “moral depravity” and a “hideous blot,” and, as the Revolutionary War was raging, Jefferson was working all the while to abolish slavery. Although Jefferson would succeed by his own leadership, in 1778, in banning the importation of slaves into his home state of Virginia, making Virginia one of the first jurisdictions globally to do so, he would not succeed, as Virginia’s governor, in banning slavery altogether – although he would make the attempt.
Jefferson actually fought against slavery his entire life. And, although Washington was able to “circumvent State laws” by freeing his slaves in his will, upon his death in 1799, “by the time of Jefferson’s death in 1826, State laws had so stiffened that it had become virtually impossible for Jefferson to use the same means.” It does appear, however, that Jefferson was able to succeed in the freeing of five slaves in his will. It is a shame how the virtually “unknown views and forgotten efforts of both Washington and Jefferson to end slavery in their State and in the nation” have been woefully overlooked by numerous historians of the American professorate – some of whom are ill-educated, perhaps by design, while others are motivated to misguide, based upon the in-vogue narrative of anti-American revisionism that is so pervasive in academia.
Because of the reality that so many teachers are unreliable in their testimony when it comes to recounting history, education is far too important to leave to the educators. It is the duty of every American patriot to educate him- or herself, by going beyond what is heard in the classroom and pursuing further study when it comes to truly important subject matter, such as the ideas of the Founders, what the Constitution really says, and what it must have been like to walk in the shoes of important personages of the past.
The objective in learning history is not to take sides with any of the parties involved, although it is useful to comprehend the differing points of view of those involved in any given situation. Also of value is an understanding of the fact that even accomplished people who helped others in their lifetimes were often highly flawed as well. Their examples are valuable to teach, since much encouragement can be gained by knowing that one need not be perfect to succeed in life. Properly studied, history ultimately sheds light on good ideas and responsible actions that have worked in the past, so society might know what to continue doing, as well as what to discontinue or avoid doing. As Santayana has said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Black Masters Were Allowed to Own the Services of White Indentured Servants
It would appear that there was no skin-color preference, generally, among those who owned contracts of indenture. And, according to historian R. Halliburton, Jr., “for a time, free black people could even ‘own’ the services of white indentured servants in Virginia as well. Free blacks owned slaves in Boston by 1724 and in Connecticut by 1783; by 1790, 48 black people in Maryland owned 143 slaves. One particularly notorious black Maryland farmer named Nat Butler ‘regularly purchased and sold Negroes for the Southern trade.’” Indeed, there are cases of black freemen owning black slaves in all thirteen original states.
Black Ownership of Slaves Continues Through the Civil War
Black ownership of slaves in America continued right up until, and throughout, the American Civil War. Black masters were similar to white masters, of course, exercising the same property rights, per the laws of their states. Probably because the black slaveholders were in the minority among masters, they were at times more vociferous in their support of the peculiar institution of slavery than white masters were. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has written about this: “Perhaps the most insidious or desperate attempt to defend the right of black people to own slaves was the statement made on the eve of the Civil War by a group of free people of color in New Orleans, offering their services to the Confederacy, in part because they were fearful for their own enslavement: ‘The free colored population [native] of Louisiana . . . own slaves, and they are dearly attached to their native land . . . and they are ready to shed their blood for her defense. They have no sympathy for abolitionism; no love for the North, but they have plenty for Louisiana. . . . They will fight for her in 1861 as they fought [to defend New Orleans from the British] in 1814-1815.’” Apparently, this particular black community was deeply committed to maintaining the slaveholding property rights that were theirs by law.
Some Black Masters Were Harsh
Aubrey Henderson has written of William Ellison, who, in 1862, was one of the largest and richest slave owners in South Carolina. Freed by his master at 26, Ellison began to build his own life as a black master: “What makes Ellison so despicable . . . is how he collected his wealth. Ellison was known to have made a large proportion of his money as a ‘slave breeder.’ Breeding slaves was illegal in many Southern states, but Ellison secretly sold almost all females born, keeping a select few for future breeding. He kept many of the young males, as they were considered useful on his plantation. Ellison was known to be a harsh master, and his slaves were almost starved and extremely poorly clothed. He kept a windowless building on his property for the specific purpose of chaining his misbehaving slaves.” There were many other black masters who profited from their slaves, spanning the entire spectrum from being relatively benevolent to extremely harsh in how they treated their slaves – neither any better nor any worse than white slaveholders by way of comparison. The myth that black masters only bought their slaves to liberate them from harsh conditions elsewhere has long been dispelled. Nor did black slaveholders universally treat their purchased spouses kindly.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has written of black slaveholders, quoting Carter Woodson, that “some of the husbands who purchased their spouses ‘were not anxious to liberate their wives immediately. They considered it advisable to put them on probation for a few years, and if they did not find them satisfactory they would sell their wives as other slave holders disposed of Negroes.’ He then relates the example of a black man, a shoemaker in Charleston, S.C., who purchased his wife for $700. But ‘on finding her hard to please, he sold her a few months thereafter for $750, gaining $50 by the transaction.’”
After All, People Are Just People
Gates expresses the fact that many people find black ownership of slaves to be distressing. He goes on to say, however, that “given the long history of class divisions in the black community, which Martin R. Delany as early as the 1850s described as ‘a nation within a nation,’ and given the role of African elites in the long history of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, perhaps we should not be surprised that we can find examples throughout black history of just about every sort of human behavior, from the most noble to the most heinous, that we find in any other people’s history.” What Gates is saying, in essence, is that – across families, communities, and nations – people are just people, after all. And, indeed – as human beings endowed with the same basic genomic, cerebral, and physical characteristics – how could things be any different?
For Further Research
Smithsonian Magazine: The Horrible Fate of John Casor, the First Black Man to Be Declared Slave for Life in America: LINK.
Wesleyan University: Slavery in North America, 1654-June 19, 1865: LINK.
Court Ruling on Anthony Johnson and His Servant: Transcript from Original, 1655: LINK.
The Truth About Why Some Free Blacks Owned Slaves: LINK.
Top Ten Black Slave Owners: LINK.
Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence, with His Antislavery Clause: LINK.
There are cases of black freemen owning black slaves in all thirteen original states, per Free Black Owners of Slaves: A Reappraisal of the Woodson Thesis: LINK (or type in this link to your browser: https://www.jstor.org/stable/27567319?seq=1).
George Washington, Thomas Jefferson & Slavery in Virginia: LINK.
William (Billy) Lee, Mount Vernon Digital Library: LINK.
Washington’s Changing Views on Slavery, Mount Vernon Digital Library: LINK.