Anthony Johnson: an Unconventional Figure in American Slavery History

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Updated: Oct 26, 2023
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The narrative of slavery in the United States is filled with figures that played roles in shaping the course of American history. Among these figures is a less commonly discussed individual named Anthony Johnson, an early African settler who not only achieved freedom but became a landowner and a slave owner in 17th-century Virginia. Johnson’s life is an intricate tapestry of complexities, shedding light on the nascent stages of the institution of slavery and challenging our perceptions of early African American history.

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Anthony Johnson’s life story began in Africa, from where he was captured and transported to the English colony of Virginia in 1621. Originally named “Antonio,” he was listed as an “indentured servant” rather than a slave. Indentured servitude, unlike racialized lifetime slavery, was a system where individuals worked for a predetermined number of years to repay a debt or, more commonly, passage to the New World. It was in this capacity that Johnson labored on a tobacco plantation, navigating a society that hadn’t yet crystallized its racial hierarchies or codified its system of chattel slavery. Over the years, he secured his freedom, changed his name to Anthony Johnson, and started working his own land, eventually expanding his holdings considerably.

The peculiar turn in Johnson’s life arose when he became involved in a court case in 1655. The dispute was over John Casor, a black man and an indentured servant on Johnson’s property. Casor claimed he had served his indenture and was now free. However, Johnson insisted that Casor was his for life. The court’s decision was groundbreaking: it ruled in Johnson’s favor, effectively recognizing him as the owner of Casor for life and solidifying Casor as one of the first judicially recognized lifelong slaves. The notion that an African American could legally own another African American as property was both unprecedented and paradoxical, revealing the fluid and ambiguous racial and social dynamics of the mid-17th century.

Johnson’s ability to thrive, amass wealth, and even own slaves poses a thought-provoking divergence from the later archetype of African American experiences in the burgeoning colonies. By the end of the 17th century, as racialized chattel slavery became more institutionalized, the legal and societal positions of Africans and their descendants deteriorated. Laws solidified the concept that one could be a slave for life based on the condition of their birth and the color of their skin. And yet, just decades earlier, Anthony Johnson, an African man, had manipulated these still-fluid systems to his advantage.

Analyzing Anthony Johnson’s life requires careful consideration of the multifaceted social landscape of the 1600s, a period before the full entrenchment of racialized slavery. Johnson’s journey from captive African to Virginia landowner and slave owner illuminates a time when the boundaries of race, freedom, and servitude were still malleable. He is both a testament to the complexities of early African American experiences and a reminder of the fluid nature of historical definitions of race and class.

Understanding figures like Johnson is crucial because it reminds us that the early chapters of African American history were not monolithic tales of oppression. Stories like his complicate our understanding of the past, challenging assumptions and urging a more nuanced examination of the intricate fabric of early American society.

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Anthony Johnson: An Unconventional Figure in American Slavery History. (2023, Oct 26). Retrieved from