America’s First Slave-Owner was Black

October 10, 2013

According to colonial records, the first slave owner in the United States was a black man.

Actual drawing of Anthony Johnson. America’s first slave owner.
Actual drawing of Anthony Johnson. America’s first slave owner.

Prior to 1655 there were no legal slaves in the colonies, only indentured servants. All masters were required to free their servants after their time was up. Seven years was the limit that an indentured servant could be held. Upon their release they were granted 50 acres of land. This included any Negro purchased from slave traders. Negros were also granted 50 acres upon their release.

Anthony Johnson was a Negro from modern-day Angola. He was brought to the US to work on a tobacco farm in 1619. In 1622 he was almost killed when Powhatan Indians attacked the farm. 52 out of 57 people on the farm perished in the attack. He married a female black servant while working on the farm.

When Anthony was released he was legally recognized as a “free Negro” and ran a successful farm. In 1651 he held 250 acres and five black indentured servants. In 1654, it was time for Anthony to release John Casor, a black indentured servant. Instead Anthony told Casor he was extending his time. Casor left and became employed by the free white man Robert Parker.

Anthony Johnson sued Robert Parker in the Northampton Court in 1654. In 1655, the court ruled that Anthony Johnson could hold John Casor indefinitely. The court gave judicial sanction for blacks to own slave of their own race. Thus Casor became the first permanent slave and Johnson the first slave owner.

Whites still could not legally hold a black servant as an indefinite slave until 1670. In that year, the colonial assembly passed legislation permitting free whites, blacks, and Indians the right to own blacks as slaves.

By 1699, the number of free blacks prompted fears of a “Negro insurrection.” Virginia Colonial ordered the repatriation of freed blacks back to Africa. Many blacks sold themselves to white masters so they would not have to go to Africa. This was the first effort to gently repatriate free blacks back to Africa. The modern nations of Sierra Leone and Liberia both originated as colonies of repatriated former black slaves.

However, black slave owners continued to thrive in the United States.

By 1830 there were 3,775 black families living in the South who owned black slaves. By 1860 there were about 3,000 slaves owned by black households in the city of New Orleans alone.

John Casor
Anthony Johnson