Although slavery did not become firmly established in Virginia, either in practice or in the law, until fifty years after the first Africans arrived in 1619, the great majority of Black men and women likely lived as enslaved laborers during this time, with a smaller number working as indentured servants. Both servants and enslaved people found ways to secure their freedom, but the number of free Blacks remained relatively small, especially when compared with the colony’s total population. In 1649, about 300 Africans and African Americans accounted for only about 2 percent of the colony’s population of 15,000. By 1720, that percentage had risen dramatically, perhaps to as much as 20 percent; however, during that same period, enslaved people’s access to freedom was greatly constrained. As a result, the absolute number and percentage of free Blacks in Virginia likely did not rise comparably.
The records for Northampton County, in particular, provide historians with rare access to precise information about free Blacks in colonial Virginia. They indicate that between 1664 and 1677, 101 Africans and African Americans lived in the county, 53 of whom were male and 48 female. Of those, thirteen were free householders—ten male and three female—comprising about 13 percent of the Black population and just more than 1 percent of the county’s total population. When only males are considered, then almost 19 percent of the county’s Black population lived as freemen. And that percentage may have been higher during any given year of this time span (29 percent in 1668, for example).
Relations between Blacks and whites in Virginia were flexible at first. Blacks and whites often lived near one another, worked together, and socialized together. Blacks had access to the justice system and appeared to be treated equally by the courts. Some Blacks even owned slaves and indentured servants. At the same time, many enslaved Africans and African Americans who were allowed to earn money, keep livestock, and raise crops for themselves sometimes took advantage of these economic privileges to purchase their freedom.
Early in seventeenth-century Virginia, freedom was seen, even by some white planters, as a legitimate goal for enslaved Blacks. The two most common paths to freedom were manumission and self-purchase. Rather than acting out of altruism, enslavers saw the promise of freedom as a more practical incentive than violence to motivate slaves to work hard. In Northampton County, Argall Yeardley directed in his will that a three-year-old enslaved boy be freed and given two cows on his twenty-fourth birthday. Also in Northampton, William Harman purchased his freedom from William Kendall based on an agreement the two of them signed on January 30, 1660. Kendall had just bought Harman from another planter for 4,000 pounds of tobacco. Now, Harman owed Kendall “five thousand pounds of tobacco and Caske clear of grounde leaves or trash, within two Compleate years,” a significant task given the average laborer’s production of 1,500 pounds. Harman apparently succeeded, though, and in so doing rewarded Kendall with a profit of 1,000 pounds of tobacco.
Baptism was another potential route to freedom. In 1656, the General Assembly ordered Elizabeth Key to be freed, in part because “shee is able to give a very good account of her faith.” Key also argued that her father, Thomas Key, should count in her favor because he was white, and the assembly agreed, citing common law. Key’s case suggests that Blacks could expect a fair hearing in court and that they were well acquainted with the law. This was especially true of African Americans, who were better acclimated to English language and law than Africans, which could make them more successful advocates for themselves in court.
Anthony Johnson was not an African American, but this did not stop him from doing well before Northampton County judges. Possibly a native of Angola on the west coast of Africa, Johnson bought his freedom from the Bennett family and, with his wife Mary Johnson and their children, owned land and at least one enslaved laborer on the Eastern Shore. After a fire destroyed their plantation, the court in February 1653 exempted the Johnsons from taxes for the rest of their lives. Later that year, Johnson sought the court’s intervention in a dispute with a white man over a cow, and on March 8, 1655, Johnson accused a different white man of stealing his enslaved laborer. The court found in Johnson’s favor and ordered his enslaved laborer returned.
Johnson was able to succeed in Virginia in large part because he owned land and livestock. In other words, the same economic tools that allowed enslaved people to purchase their freedom helped free Blacks to sustain that freedom. A Northampton County Court record from 1645 tells the story of Captain Taylor, a white man, and Anthony, a Black man, who went out into a cornfield. When they returned, “the said negro told this deponent saying now Mr. Taylor and I have devided our Corne And I am very glad of it now I know myne owne, he finds fault with mee that I doe not worke but now I know myne owne ground I will worke when I please and play when I please.” While Anthony may not have been free, it is clear that land played an important role in his conception of freedom—both economically and psychologically. Captain Taylor likely understood this fact and attempted to use it for his own advantage.
Freedom appeared to come to Africans and African Americans with the expectation that they would become full members of their communities. The historians T. H. Breen and Stephen Innes have suggested that “free blacks attempted to transform themselves into black Englishmen,” which was true not only in their economic aspirations, but in their social assumptions. Free Blacks, such as Anthony Longo, who lived on the Eastern Shore, expected to be treated as the equals of white small farmers and lived in no great fear of authority. When a court demanded his testimony on some matter, Longo refused, telling the court officer to “goe about your business you idle Rascall as did likewise his wife, with such noyse that I could hardly heare my owne words.” The historian Philip D. Morgan tells the story of Philip Mongom, a free Black and formerly enslaved man in Northampton County who had numerous run-ins with the law and was similarly disinclined to always do as he was told. “Surely seventeenth-century Virginia could claim the pugnacious, truculent, and enterprising Philip Mongon as one of its very own,” Morgan wrote.
If men like Longo and Mongon could be seen as Black Englishmen, the reverse might also be true. Longo and Mongon took Christian first names but retained African last names, for example. In 1677, Anthony Johnson’s son John Johnson purchased forty-four acres of land in Somerset County, Maryland, and named the farm Angola. Still, the earliest free Blacks saw assimilation into English society as being strongly in their economic and social interests. They tended to live among whites rather than in segregated communities, and they took great pains to separate themselves from enslaved Blacks. It is no coincidence, perhaps, that so many free Blacks lived on the Eastern Shore, which was situated on the margins of Virginia’s slave society.
Toward the end of the seventeenth century, the supply of white indentured servants available to cultivate Virginia’s tobacco crop declined, and as a consequence of this and changes in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the number of slaves imported directly from Africa increased. Over time, Virginia transitioned—to use the historian Ira Berlin’s terminology—from a society with enslaved laborers to a slave society. New laws restricted enslaved people’s access to freedom and began to define slavery in strictly racial terms. Even if these Africans had possessed the language skills and cultural knowledge necessary to find legal paths to freedom, those paths all but disappeared.
In 1656, Elizabeth Key won her freedom in part by citing to the court her white father and her baptism as a Christian. In December 1662, however, the General Assembly declared that “all children borne in this country shalbe held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother.” In other words, the children of an enslaved women would be enslaved. The assembly went further and doubled the fines imposed on any whites caught having sex with Blacks. Then, in September 1667, the assembly passed “An act declaring that baptisme of slaves doth not exempt them from bondage.” The paths Key had followed to freedom were now closed.
The law, while penalizing relations between the races, nevertheless made room for the children of a white mother and a Black father to seek freedom. It did not come easy, though. In 1670, a free white woman named Katherine Jewell arranged for her mixed-race son William to be bound to the York County planter William Booth for thirty years and then freed. When he was twenty-four, William sued and won his freedom, and the court ordered his enslaver to additionally provide him with corn and clothes.
In a September 1668 act titled “Negro women not exempted from tax,” the General Assembly ordered that all Black women, including free Black women, were henceforth tithable. The term refers to a poll tax the government levied on all men over the age of fifteen—the people who, by working the land, produced the colony’s wealth. (Enslavers paid taxes for their enslaved laborers.) In 1662 all working women were declared tithable, but free white women—in other words, women who did not necessarily work the land—were exempted. With all Black women now taxed, a free Black married couple paid twice as much tax as a free white married couple, a burden that could lead to re-enslavement.
Mixed marriages offered some kind of protection against the burdens of these race laws. Elizabeth Key married her white lawyer, William Greensted, upon winning her suit. In Northampton County, a free Black man named Francis Payne married a white woman named Aymey—a financially advantageous match after 1668. Not so in the case of Francis Skiper, a white man, who in 1671 married a Black woman in Norfolk County and so increased his tax rate. Twenty years later, worried about the “abominable mixture and spurious issue,” not to mention the many legal complications, that accompanied such unions, the assembly outlawed mixed-race marriages altogether.
By 1705, free Black men could not serve in any position of public trust, power, or authority over whites, whether ecclesiastic, civil, or military. In May 1723, the General Assembly restricted their rights even further. As part of a long act devoted to “the better government of Negros, Mulattos, and Indians, bond or free,” the assembly declared “That no free negro, mullatto, or indian whatsoever, hereafter have any vote at the election of burgesses, or any other election whatsoever.” This seemed unfair even by English standards and aroused the interest of a Board of Trade lawyer named Richard West, who protested to his superiors. “Altho’ I agree that Slaves are to be treated in such a manner as the proprietors of them (having a regard to their number) may think necessary for their Security,” West wrote, “yet I cannot see why one Freeman should be used worse than another merely upon account of his complexion.”
Virginia lieutenant governor Sir William Gooch later explained that at the time the act was written, the colony’s free Blacks were suspected of aiding “a Conspiracy discovered amongst the Negros,” and although “there could be no legal Proof, so as to Convict them, yet such was the Insolence of the Free-Negros at that time, that the next Assembly thought it necessary” to act. Gooch’s explanation was accepted by the Crown and seems to suggest that, in Virginia, free Blacks either no longer wanted to or no longer could maintain distance between themselves and enslaved Blacks. By virtue of their skin color they were considered a suspect class and lived in what the scholar George M. Fredrickson called “quasi freedom.”
In fact, in the same 1691 act that outlawed interracial marriage, the General Assembly required that all newly freed enslaved people leave the colony. Assembly members cited the “great inconveniences” that came with free Blacks “entertaining negro slaves from their masters service, or receiving stolen goods, or being grown old bringing a charge upon the country.” Rather than encourage the livelihood of free Blacks, as the government did when it relieved Anthony and Mary Johnson of all taxes after the loss of their farm, Virginia now sought to rid itself entirely of them. In the increasingly unlikely event that an enslaver freed enslaved laborers, he now must pay to have them transported out of the colony within six months. Moreover, the 1723 “better government” act restricted an enslaver’s ability to free an enslaved person even if he so wished. Thereafter, he could only do it “for some meritorious services, to be adjudged and allowed by the governor and council.”
Many free Blacks like the Johnsons abandoned Virginia in search of better economic opportunities and more freedom. As a result, the colony was home to fewer free Blacks relative to the total Black population and fewer of them proportionally were entirely of African descent. By the middle of the eighteenth century, free Blacks of African descent likely accounted for no more than 5 percent of the Black population and free Blacks probably less than 20 percent. In this way, light-skinned free Blacks represented a symbolic transition from Black-skinned to white-skinned, from enslaved to free. They were not quite one or the other. Only the American Revolution (1775–1783), with its rhetoric of inalienable rights, would provide some hope for Virginia’s free and enslaved population—a hope that ultimately would be short-lived.