A Black Craigslist: Virginia, 1660

ANNETTE TELLS TALES: Stories from the Past That Resonate with Now, Retold

It’s January, 1660, and Francis Payne, tobacco planter on Virginia's Eastern Shore, has a horse to sell.

Craigslist in 17th century Virginia means riding his horse through the wooded countryside to visit prospective buyers, one by one. He's choosy about his potential customers, because he finds some tobacco planters more comfortable to deal with than others. In search of a friendly buyer, Payne passes by many plantations to show off his mare to Tony Johnson.

Johnson likes what he sees. So the two men strike a deal, using the typical money of 17th century Virginia: Tobacco, 2,200 lbs of it, to be delivered packed in wooden barrels.

Okay, this isn't very exciting, is it? But wait for it . . .

Francis Payne and Anthony Johnson are both Black. Both free. Both landowners.

In Virginia. In 1660.

Yes, you read that right.

We know most about Payne’s customer, the man called Tony Johnson. This was not his original name. He was likely born in Angola, in the west of Africa. He had survived the horrific journey across the Atlantic aboard a slave ship, in which human beings, most of them young men, sick and traumatized, were shackled and packed together like trade goods.

But, unlike most later Black arrivals to Virginia, this young man probably did not come directly from Africa, but from the West Indies. If this was so, it was in the slave-labor camps of the Caribbean colonies that he underwent “seasoning”, meaning that he was exposed to a new climate, unfamiliar foods, and the full brutality of plantation slavery, as he was forced to work in the sugar fields. He may also have learned English: it became the common language in the West Indies among African people from many nations, people of many languages, so they could communicate not only with their enslavers, but with each other.

When he arrived in Virginia on board the James in 1621, the young man’s name was recorded as Antonio, a name probably given to him by Portuguese slave traders. He was purchased by a white English planter named Richard Bennett, and put to work in the tobacco fields of Bennett’s plantation. Fifteen years after Englishmen had arrived, Virginia's economy was booming, as sales of this addictive drug skyrocketed in England, and greedy tobacco planters wanted all the workers they could get.

Most of these workers were men, and most were Englishmen. Sometimes they had volunteered to cross the Atlantic, sometimes they were destitute and desperate, and sometimes they were conned or forced onto ships. They worked long hours for no wages, were fed and clothed as cheaply as possible, and whipped for their transgressions.

But these white Englishmen were not slaves. Although indentured servitude had many features in common with slavery, Englishmen could not be slaves under law. And so, as indentured servants, they could expect to be freed in four to seven years, so long as they survived malaria, harsh treatment, and overwork, and many did not. Brutalized and exploited, the survivors who became free were ready to become tobacco planters, and to do the same to others as had been done to them.

Antonio’s future, as an enslaved African, was even less certain than that of whites. Nobody had yet passed a law deciding what would become of him, or other Africans brought to Virginia, some of whom, unlike Antonio, were described as indentured servants.

It was an unstable time for everyone in Virginia. In 1622, the year after Antonio’s arrival, Virginia’s indigenous people had had enough of 15 years of being misled, attacked, and displaced from their own land. One cold March day, Indians in the region launched a massive concerted attack on Virginia’s English settlements, killing more than 350 colonists in a single morning.

Among the few survivors? Antonio.

His good fortune continued: He found a wife, marrying one of the very few Black women to arrive in Virginia around this time. Anthony, the English name he took, shortened to Tony, and Mary had at least four kids.

And by 1635, Tony and Mary had become free, and were poised to start a plantation of their own.

How did that happen? In 1635, Virginia law still didn't yet have much to say about slavery. So some (not all) enslaved Africans were freed, and, some, like Tony and Mary, became tobacco planters.

Mary and Tony gave themselves the English name Johnson, and settled down on their own land.

Historians long assumed that early free Black people in early Virginia became part of English society. And of course, to a large extent, the Johnsons did just that. Here’s one example: After Tony and Mary’s house burned down in 1653, they asked the county court for property tax relief. The justices visited their plantation, and after seeing the damage, they praised Tony and Mary Johnson as respectable members of the community, known for their “hard labor and known service.” The court then excused the couple and their two adult daughters from local property taxes, for life. This decision put Mary and her daughters on a par with white women, who were normally excused from property taxes, while Black women, explicitly, were not. The court had made an exception for this family. But the rule remained.

The Johnsons, well regarded by local whites, were very much also members of a distinct Black community. When Francis Payne had a horse to sell, he traveled quite a distance to offer it to Tony Johnson, rather than just advertising among his neighboring white planters. Black Virginians often travelled long distances to hang out with each other, helped out runaway enslaved people, and, as we saw in the deal with the horse, did business with each other. They also quarreled: Francis Payne took John Gossall (also Black) to court over an unpaid debt.

Like other tobacco planters, Tony Johnson purchased white indentured servants, and, by the time of his death, owned at least one enslaved African, a man named John Casor.

Whoa. Hold on. Your attention please. This news is easily reduced to a racist meme, and, of course, it has been. I promise to write about John Casor in a separate post of his own later. But for now, let's be clear: In 1660, uncomfortable though it is for us in America today, unfree labor, mostly white indentured servitude, and, increasingly, African slavery, was the accepted reality of most people in England’s American colonies. The only path to wealth in Virginia, the only way out of poverty and to independence, was to become a tobacco planter, owning unfree workers. Mary and Tony were no exception. Not yet.

But all along, even as Tony and Mary established their plantation, and raised their kids, and went to court, the clouds of change were gathering over this relatively integrated, but still, please note, deeply unequal community.

By the end of the century, the door leading to wealth was closed to Black people in Virginia. Law after law restricted the freeing of slaves, and denied free Blacks the right to buy land and conduct business.

The process of chipping away at Black Virginians' rights began early. In 1640, twenty years before Francis Payne sold a horse to Tony Johnson, John Punch, who was Black, and considered an indentured servant who would one day be free, ran away from a tobacco plantation with two white indentured servants, a Scot and a Dutchman. The three men were caught, and severely whipped in public, thirty lashes each on the bare shoulders.

The two white men were also sentenced to spend four additional years as indentured servants before becoming free, a heavy sentence that basically doubled their time. John Punch was sentenced to be enslaved for life.

Again: White people were never enslaved in English America, not even the Irish, despite what you may have read on the Internets.

Virginia law was changing throughout the century, and not in a good way for Black people. The point of Virginia from the start had not been a fair society of laws: It had been to enrich a small number of white Englishmen. These elite Englishmen were the wealthiest landowners: They owned the most land and the most servants and (increasingly) the most enslaved people. And because political and economic power went hand in hand, these men were also the legislators who wrote Virginia’s laws, and the justices who decided court cases.

When poorer planters, most of them former indentured servants, rose up against the elite in 1676, in a civil war called Bacon’s Rebellion, Virginia's rich and powerful white men had an alarming new incentive to create a permanent underclass of enslaved Africans, separated from whites by color and legal status, who would never become free.

This would also serve elite interests by convincing poorer white people that, no matter how poor they were, they had more in common with rich white planters than with Black people, free or enslaved.

Increasingly, more and more legal rights and privileges were reserved for whites, no matter how poor, and fewer and fewer rights were allowed to Blacks, no matter how prosperous. In 1668, the Virginia legislature declared:

“negro women, though permitted to enjoy their freedom, yet ought not in all respects to be admitted to a full fruition of the exemptions and impunities of the English”.

Translation? Free Black women could stay free, but they shouldn’t expect much more than that. By 1700, white women indentured servants were forbidden by law to work in tobacco fields; enslaved Black women were not.

And all this happened in time for an explosion in the numbers of enslaved Black people arriving in Virginia. Starting in the last two decades of the 17th century, thousands and thousands of enslaved people arrived, still mostly men, and unlike most Black people who came before, including (probably) Tony Johnson, they came directly from Africa. Their foreign languages, their sheer numbers, their potential for rebellion against slavery, all frightened whites. Whites now began to talk of Black people as inherently different, and, for the first time, as inherently inferior. This was not a coincidence.

Rich whites, who might have been uneasy with the slavery on which their wealth increasingly depended, but not uneasy enough to give it up, became inclined to believe that people with superficial physical differences were not just unfortunate to end up as slaves, but were inferior.

Poor whites who found newly-arrived enslaved Africans deeply foreign had every incentive to decide that Black people were alien and inferior, to support laws that defined Blacks and whites differently. It was then easier for them to believe that rich whites were their natural allies, easier to support slavery, and less likely to question a government that kept them poor.

After 1700, it was simply easier all round for all whites in Virginia to embrace racism, than it would have been for them to acknowledge the brutal and inhumane reality of the emerging system. So that's what they did.

Under race-based plantation slavery, nobody became free, including the children and grandchildren of enslaved people. It was a system in which a few wealthy white people held absolute power over enslaved people. Indentured servants who were abused could appeal to the authorities; Enslaved people could not.

And we’re still living with the consequences of all of it.

So what happened to the free Black community of early Virginia, and the Johnsons?

By the end of the century, any Black person who was made free was required by law to leave Virginia. The law was not enforced, and the free Black community remained. But its members were poor, and they were forbidden by law from any opportunity to be anything else.

Long before then, the Johnsons had left Virginia.

In the mid-1660s, just a few years after he bought Francis Payne’s horse, Anthony Johnson and his adult sons put their lands on Craiglist, so to speak, and, this time, the buyers were white.

The whole Johnson family moved to Maryland, probably in search of fresh land not yet exhausted by the demands of tobacco.

There, Anthony Johnson leased a 300 acre plantation he named Tony’s Vineyard.

He died soon afterward.

Mary, widowed after forty years of marriage, kept the place going. Later, her grandson John bought another plantation. He named it Angola, after his grandfather Tony's African place of birth. John Johnson died in 1706.

And that’s it. That’s the last we hear of the Johnsons. Like the rest of the free Black landowners of Virginia’s Eastern shore, they simply vanish from the records, and from America’s memory, leaving behind only a lingering sense that things might not have turned out quite the way they did.

Interested in learning more? In retelling the story of Anthony and Mary Johnson, I have relied on T.H. Breen and Stephen Innes, “Myne Owne Ground”: Race and Freedom on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, 1640-1660. It’s a work of academic history, but it’s fairly readable, inexpensive, and, at only 114 pages without footnotes, short. Oh, and all praise to Professor Breen (I’m a big fan, by the way. Met him once and made a complete fool of myself). If I have gotten anything wrong, I will be happy to hear from him, or any academic historian specializing in the field.

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