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Anthony Johnson ( c. 1600 - c.1670 )  Category ( Historical_Figures ) [suggest a correction]

Though it may come as a surprise to many, a number of Africans lived and prospered in the Colony of Virginia during the seventeenth century. While officially blacks did not arrive in the colony until 1619, more than a few came before that date, and were considered free or indentured for a specific period of years (between four and seven, usually). The blacks arriving in 1619 were regarded also as indentured servants. Anthony Johnson may have been on board the ship of the 1619 arrivals. After serving what appears to have been a lengthy indenture, Johnson purchased his freedom from servitude for himself and his wife. Records in Northhampton County, Virginia, show that by 1651 he was able to afford to bring five servants of his own to the colony, due to the “headrights” system in place at the time (in other words, for each person's passage paid, the paying colonist would receive fifty acres).

Johnson achieved personal and financial success before slavery had officially taken root in Virginia. Indeed, it was Johnson's court case against another black man, John Casor, which established slavery in Virginia, and by that precedent, throughout the English colonies. While Johnson insisted he had purchased Casor as a slave, the latter claimed he was an indentured servant of a white man. Johnson prevailed in the case and ordered that the white planter return "...said Negro [to] Anthony Johnson his mazster...".

Johnson is often held up as an example of how blacks and whites were treated equally in early Virginia. While Johnson and his family are good examples of fortitude and determination, there exist court records that indicate all was not well for the Johnson family. They were repeatedly harassed by some of the English planters, and on several occasions various parties threatened to seize ownership of Johnson land, since, as a Negro, Johnson could be viewed as a "foreigner," and thus should not qualify for the English headright system. Concerned for their property rights and perhaps their personal safety, the Johnson family sold most of their land in Virginia and relocated to Maryland. Their troubles did not end there, and the Virginia land they did not sell was seized by other planters. Johnson died in the late 1660s. His widow, Mary, continued to protect the family's rights to settle and farm and at times went to court to defend those rights. The Johnson's had one son, who married and had several children of his own. The Johnson family appears in court records throughout the middle to late seventeenth century, providing intriguing insight into the power structure of Colonial Virginia and Maryland, as well as a glimpse at how it was possible for a black family to succeed at a time when most black arrivals to the area were either indentured or enslaved.

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