In the beginning, and for several decades afterward, slavery was not primarily a governmental institution, neither in Europe, nor the United States.
Initially, the enslavement of Africans was almost all done privately. There were, to be sure, a handful of governmental charters, but in the early days, the preponderating number of slaves were traded by private entrepreneurs who exchanged rum, spices, and other items to tribal chiefs for Africans whom these same tribal chiefs had already enslaved. In essence, they were merely relocated.
Make no mistake, however: the European traders were indeed responsible for perpetuating that barbaric institution; but they were not the people responsible for “enslaving the tribe that had lost a war or the man who had fallen into debt or the child sold by the family,” as historian Roger McGrath put it. That blame goes directly to the tribal African chiefs.
In fact, slavery was not for a very long time recognized as a legal institution in the colonies of this country. Thus, the first Africans were not, strictly speaking, slaves but rather indentured servants.
The fact of it becoming a legalized institution in the United States was actually brought about by a black man named Anthony Johnson, himself an erstwhile slave back in Africa, and then an indentured servant in the American colonies. After his indentured servitude had expired, Mr. Johnson was granted land in Virginia, where he subsequently acquired several indentured servants of his own – among them, one John Castor, an African who had been sold to him while already in the American colonies.
It was these same men, John Castor and Anthony Johnson, both black, who were initially responsible for the institution of slavery becoming recognized legally in this country.
When John Castor’s years of indentured servitude were finished, he was not immediately granted his freedom. And so he sued for it, as well he should have, as you and I would have too.
But Anthony Johnson, his owner, fought back, alleging in court that John Castor had never entered into what they called a “contract of indenture” but had been bought in toto as a slave in Africa. In a landmark decision, in 1654, the high court of the colony of Virginia found in Anthony Johnson’s favor, pronouncing that “John Castor was a servant for life.”
Chilling words, which no human should ever have to hear.
This was a monumental and precedent-setting case, later cited to weariness by the Southern colonies, so that slavery was soon officially institutionalized.
The fact that two black men are in large part the authors of American slavery is a piece of American history well worth teaching, no matter how postmodern the curriculum.
It is also a fact that black Americans held slaves all throughout the Civil War.
“In 1860, some 3,000 blacks owned nearly 20,000 black slaves. In South Carolina alone, more than 10,000 blacks were owned by black slaveholders. Born a slave in 1790, William Ellison owned 63 slaves by 1860, making him one of Charleston’s leading slaveholders. In the 1850 census for Charleston City, the port of Charleston, there were 68 black men and 123 black women who owned slaves. In Louisiana’s St. Landry Parish, according to the 1860 census, black planter Auguste Donatto owned 70 slaves and farmed 500 acres of cotton fields” (“Slavery’s Inconvenient Facts,” Chronicles, November 2001).
In terms of total population, white or black, the majority of people of either color did not own slaves in the south. In fact, “75 percent of Southerners neither owned slaves themselves nor were members of families who did” (Ibid).