BLACK SLAVERY, WHITE FREEDOM: Race in Virginia in the 1600’s
Shipping Tobacco 1700s A Map of the Most Inhabited Part of Virginia..., by Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson (ca. 1755).
Coming into the United States, many may not fully be aware of the power in which the color of their skin possesses, especially those of darker complexions. Speaking to a Nigerian friend of mine, he said “I only knew I was black when I would walk and talk and people (Whites particularly), would stare at me as if I was different or doing something horribly wrong; I never knew that I was black or what it meant to be black before that.” Unbeknownst to him, this may have been his first encounter with his new identity within the context of racialization, but the concept has existed for decades before he could, at the time, have conceived. Most people may not have even encountered racism to the extent in which many do in the United States, and the roots are stemmed from the earliest times of the indentured servitude, enslavement and slave periods.
Race is defined as “the classification of humans into populations or groups often based on factors such as appearance based on heritable phenotypical characteristics or geographic ancestry, but also often influenced by and correlated with traits such as culture, ethnicity and socio-economic status.” Through the creation of race one can see how the idea of racism is deduced; “the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualitiesspecific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior orsuperior to another race or races: prejudice, discrimination, or antagonismdirected against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s ownrace is superior.” Without race, there would be no racism. Advertently as history has displayed, it is an idea that subjected Africans and Negroes to the submissive rules of Whites in America and more specifically in Virginia in the 17th century.
Tobacco Paper, Virginia, 17th century Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Virginia
As perceived in many of the colonies in the 17th century, Virginia had a decent amount of Blacks that co-existed within the labor system without immense subjection. In fact, in 1625 Virginia had a population of more than twelve thousand; twenty-three were African and of those twenty-three, fifteen were property (Soderlund, 2000). As previously stated, about one-third of Virginia’s African population were not property under the slave system, meaning they were indentured servants or possibly even owned land and slaves or indentured servants themselves. The exact possibilities are not viable given that much information on Africans in Virginia at the time is not known (Soderlund, 2000). However, the incentive does remain that even though race was visible, it was not yet being used as a tool to limit Africans and Negroes completely. While Africans were always suggested as being subordinates to white servants, even though it is not stated, one could probably assume that Africans were not treated with intense racial aggression and submission in the mid 1600’s:
“…Anthony and Mary Johnson, who by the 1650’s acquired a plantation of 250 acres and owned a slave, were referred to as ‘Antonio a Negro’ and ‘Mary a Negro Woman’ in earlier records. On the other hand, the fact that blacks like the Johnsons obtained freedom and land demonstrates that a rigid system of perpetual servitude was not yet in place in Virginia before 1640. While some Africans who came during the early years remained enslaved throughout their lives, others like the Johnsons and Anthony Longoe, who obtained his freedom in 1635, held a status closer to indentured servitude. (Soderlund, 2000, p. 70-71)”
This indicates that even though early Africans remained indentured servants, acquiring land and slaves was not impossible and intense racial subjection was never as crucial as we would see in the latter part of the century.
In Virginia, after 1660 white labor would decrease, the demand for labor would increase and Whites would then turn to African slaves (Parent, 2003). Indentured servants most probably provided labor in exchange for their debt of their passage to the New World. Somehow, it does not seem as though these individuals who could not afford the passage to the New World were subjected as being a different race; a group of people who were not financially able and capable as of the affording class, making them the inferior. Whites were provided no validation for being indentured servants other than debt, yet race was used to validate Africans for being slaves. Post-1660 marked the vast shift in Virginia’s labor force with race being the underlying reason as to why. Parent (2003) challenges the idea that slavery was an “unplanned consequence” of a scarce labor market. He suggests that racial slavery was introduced by the small planter class because of colonists expropriation of the new lands, the burgeoning tobacco trade, and the more so obvious switch from indentured to slave labor (Parent, 2003). What Parent (2003) suggests is that in order for this class to increase production and large landholdings, they would have to preserve their own economic and social gains and inscribe a slave labor system into effect. He also suggests that whites further subjected their notion of slavery by Christianizing Africans thus rendering them to compliance. Possibly, if immigration had not declined, there would have been a continued need for indentured servants. However, that was not the case. Whites had to mentally and psychologically denote Africans by using race superiority and inferiority because one would imagine that it would be hard to tell a Negro who has earned freedom, land and property that now they practically had nothing and was no longer of similar, not equal, status.
Race is a way for an “in-group” to limit the “out-group” simply because they are unable to conceptually understand the out-group. That is how I have understood race. However, the lessons in this class are showing race to be more as a factor to limit one group socially and economically and promote the other. As seen with Virginia, initially Africans were not treated with such harsh measurements; Africans were only indentured servants, many for life, while some were given land and property. Even though Whites were indentured servants, they were able to work off their debts. Africans had mobility, whether limited or not in the early 17th century. In the late 1600’s Africans lost everything; they could not marry, become Christians, work off their debts, earn land, etc. Africans became physical tools of the labor system. Race, racism, and a racial slave labor system had to exist in order for the New World to prosper and develop in the ways in which it did. If America did not experience the changes it did in the late 18th century, racism would be even more prominent than it is today. Even though African-Americans are not working sun-up to sun-down, we are still working within a limited structure in which Whites have created a long time ago; a structure to keep their race superior and Blacks inferior. Race, it seems, was created out of fear. A fear of Whites losing what never actually belonged to them in the first place and a fear to keep whatever it is they consider themselves to have today. In the past, as slaves rebelled and pushed beyond their boundaries, Whites made tougher more strict laws to confine them. Similarly today, Caucasians never fail to point out every negative ideology of the black community, such as black on black crimes, unemployment rates, single parent numbers, diseases that appear to exists higher among blacks than any other race, etc. The idea, it seems, is to continue to keep our “race” limited by constantly putting forth the negatives and ignoring the positives. The truth is, every race has negatives and positives, just as unemployment rates, diseases, crime, single parenting, etc. exists within EVERY race. As eminent in history, race is still projected simply to keep the dominant Caucasian race economically and socially superior. Ironically however, the inferior races have seemed to outgrown the dominant race in numbers within the past decade. The concept of race has exerted itself to be, if not the only, one of the strongest constructs that can take an individual from being someone to nothing.
Oxford Dictionaries (n.d.). racism: definition of racism in Oxford dictionary - American English (US). Retrieved October 8, 2013, from http://oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/racism?q=racism
Parent, A. S., & Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture (2003). Foul means: The formation of a slave society in Virginia, 1660-1740. Chapel Hill: Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia, by the University of North Carolina Press.
Princeton University (n.d.). Race (classification of human beings). Retrieved October 9, 2013, from http://www.princeton.edu/~achaney/tmve/wiki100k/docs/Race_(classification_of_human_beings).html
Scott, W. R., & Shade, W. G. (2000). Upon these shores: Themes in the African American experience, 1600 to the present. New York: Routledge.
Soderlund, J. R. (2000). Creating a Biracial Society. In Upon these shores: Themes in the African American experience, 1600 to the Present (pp. 63-82). New York: Routledge.