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When you hear or read the term ‘slavery’, the first thing that would readily pop into your mind is a black man being abused and used by white man. After all, this is the battle cry of the black community whenever they likened racism to slavery. While this may be true of most slave cases, do you know that the first legally recognized slaveholder in America was not a white but a black man?

A servant who became the master

Anthony Johnson was one of the first indentured servants who came to Virginia in 1619. The concept of ‘indentured servants’ was a concept introduced by the administrators of Virginia so that those without money can enter the New World by providing free labor to their benefactor who paid for their entry. Indentured servants will only work for a set period of time and they will be free afterward.

Anthony worked out his indenture period and together with his wife Mary, bought their way out of bondage. Anthony was fortunate enough to eventually acquire his own land. A former indentured servant having his own land was practically non-existent during that time. Since he and his wife were no strangers to hard work they were able to successfully grow their livestock and livelihood. By the 1650s their property had grown to 250 acres, a rare feat for an ex-servant.

Considering that Anthony owned his own plantation, he employed five Africans as indentured servants and one of them was John Casor. John completed his servant-period by laboring for seven years without pay. However, when John asked Anthony for his freedom, the ex-servant-turned-freeman (and then owner himself) refused.

Anthony eventually sent Casor to a white colonist named Robert Parker but immediately regretted his decision. To get John back, Anthony filed a case before the County Court of Northampton County, Virginia charging Parker for taking his servant and asserting that John should be his servant for life.

The court ruled in favor of Anthony on March 8, 1655. John was returned to Anthony and became the first man in American history to be legally classified as a lifelong slave. Anthony, on the other hand, became the first legally recognized slaveholder in America.