In various corners of the internet, memes circulate about a Black man identified as “Anthony Johnson,” believed to be a pioneer of American slavery and the first slave owner in North America. Intended for shock value, these memes reveal the new ways people disseminate knowledge in the age of social media. Anyone with access to the internet and the necessary software can generate historical narratives that gain disconcerting popularity. Of course, memes are perfect for establishing “Myth-stories,” as they do not ask readers to evaluate the sources and are often shared prolifically.
Though it is not the only myth attached to American slavery, the meme-ing of Anthony Johnson manifests the unique challenges scholars face in combating historical misinformation. As one of the few documented Black landowners in 17th-century Virginia, his unique story has morphed into a manipulative trope used by right-wing activists. From the 1960s–90s Johnson was predominantly known among academics who studied slavery, but interest in his (misrepresented) life has recently gained traction with the advent of digital sharing, discussion sites, and public forums. For instance, as of July 12, 2019 Johnson’s Wikipedia page claims he was a “colonist” sold by “Arab slave traders,” though there is no citation for the latter claim, nor is it supported by historians. It was likely added by a user who hoped to redirect blame from the Atlantic Slave Trade toward the “Arab Slave Trade,” a popular talking point among right-wing commentators. In his podcast disputing reparations for slavery, conservative pundit Michael Knowles reiterated this myth about Johnson without reviewing the available literature. Such historical distortions seek to minimize Europe’s culpability in expanding African slavery and discredit the system’s intergenerational impact upon African Americans.
In 1621, Johnson was delivered to Virginia’s shores as an African captive, simply called “Antonio.” By the mid-17th century, he became a landowner newly named “Anthony Johnson.” His ability to gain freedom resembles the functions of indentured servitude, in which an unfree laborer is bound to work for a landowner for a specific length of time. Once they satisfied the terms of their indenture, they could freely acquire land and capital. Since Anthony Johnson was an unfree laborer of African descent, his freedom and property acquisitions remain a source of confusion for Americans who are otherwise unfamiliar with how slavery evolved throughout the early decades of English colonialism.
A central debate surrounding the parameters of colonial bondage was the status of captive workers, specifically in identifying “servants” vs. “slaves.” It is important to note that terminology was generally more fluid in the 17th century when compared to the hardened identities that emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries. Historians Linda Heywood and John Thornton note that the English borrowed some of their descriptive words from other transatlantic enslavers, and such terms often did not acquire definitive legal classifications until the end of the 17th century. We are also limited by documents that rarely comment on the conditions of bound people with much specificity. However, it becomes clear by the mid-17th century that Africans were being defined differently than white servants, as many Africans were defined as “lifetime” servants, suggesting that the precursors for perpetual, inherited slavery were being linked with racial classifications.
By 1651, Johnson gained his freedom and acquired land and servants, eventually attaining legal ownership “for life” over a Black man named John Casor, a condition that separated servitude (labor for time) from slavery (labor for life). In 2010, Glenn Beck asserted that this case reveals how Johnson owned the first “state-sponsored slave” in American history, and like-minded commentators unsurprisingly agree. In the same episode, Beck insisted that Johnson’s story proves that slavery is a “human problem. … It’s not a white condition or a black condition.” As the narrative goes, if a Black man also owned enslaved people of African descent, it assumes that economics, not racism, bolstered US chattel slavery. For Beck, the existence of Black slaveowners inverts the narrative that American slavery was predicated on white supremacy. However, this narrow framework ignores preceding cases and misrepresents slavery’s complex evolution in the British Atlantic colonies.
The existing scholarship indicates that John Punch was the first man known to be perpetually enslaved on July 9, 1640, a punishment he received for attempting to flee his indenture. He absconded alongside two fellow servants, a “dutchman” named Victor and a “Scotchman called James Gregory.” Following their apprehension, his counterparts each received only one additional year upon their indenture, while Punch, listed as a “negro,” was enslaved “for the time of his natural Life.” Punch’s sentence documents an early framework for the growing attachment between Blackness and enslavement in North America, as the indentured white men did not receive similar punishment. Thus, Hugh Gwyn, the man who owned John Punch, would be the first recognized slaveholder, eliminating the spurious claim that a Black man innovated the North American system. Punch’s experience certainly foreshadowed legal maneuvers in the 18th century. As more African “servants” became permanently enslaved, their status was transmitted to their children. As historian Jennifer Morgan notes, it was this pairing of race, reproduction, and heritability that determined the racialization of chattel slavery in the Western Hemisphere.
To be sure, some secondary works have proposed that African and European bonds-people shared a similar status in colonial Virginia. Historians T.H. Breen and Stephen Innes, whose book Myne Owne Ground is considered the first extensive study of Johnson’s life, claimed that prior to the close of the 17th century, “Englishmen and Africans could interact with one another on terms of relative equality for two generations.” However, historians like Alden T. Vaughan, Lorena Walsh, and Michael Guasco reevaluated the status of such captive Africans in Virginia and elsewhere, concluding that early laws for people of African descent were often determined by their color (not the case for Europeans) and miscegenation laws were specifically designed to preserve the purity of white Europeans. Indeed, in John Punch’s case, his European counterparts each held nationalities, while he was solely defined by a socially-constructed racial identity. Walsh contends that the few Africans who came to the Chesapeake colonies as indentured servants have “confused the issue of the fate of the great majority,” arguing that, unlike European bonds-people, most captive Africans lacked basic information in the documents, including names, ages, and arrival dates. They were rendered anonymous in the historical record, differentiating them from European servants who at least maintained an ethnic identifier beyond their indenture. Thus, even if Africans were not “enslaved” by the later standards of the 19th century, they were certainly not viewed as equal to white servants. These early distinctions eventually shifted toward concrete identifications of chattel enslavement and its explicit links to Blackness throughout the Atlantic.
Such fictive biographies are enticing for those seeking to downplay the role Europeans played in expanding chattel slavery. A cursory search through Twitter reveals that Johnson is evoked by those who deny Black Americans’ claims to legitimate grievances, specifically reparations. Since the HR-40 hearings of June 19, 2019, references to Johnson are especially prominent throughout social media as conservative commentators like Larry Elder and Michael Knowles use him to reject the viability of reparations. Similar claims are evoked by the average conservative Twitter user. In one tweet to Senator Elizabeth Warren, a supporter of reparations, a user disingenuously stated: “you are aware the institution of slavery was brought to these shores by a black Angolan, Anthony Johnson … And as such, please track down his descendants & ask them for reparations.” Knowles even wrote a column declaring that Johnson was America’s first formally recognized slave owner, asking, “Do his descendants get reparations?”
Of course, such dubious statements misrepresent the primary issues raised by their supporters. The broader claim is not that the descendants of individual slave owners owe money to specific descendants of enslaved people, but that American slavery built a system that elevated whiteness while simultaneously reaping devastating consequences for African Americans well after emancipation. But to answer Knowles’s point directly, yes, Johnson’s descendants would be entitled to reparations. In accessing the available literature, one knows that legislative racism eventually subverted any gains he or his descendants made in the colony. According to Henry Louis Gates, after Johnson’s death a court ruled he was “a negro, and by consequence, an alien.” Subsequently, the colony of Virginia seized his family’s land and his descendants fade from the historical record. Presumably, they either fled the colony as anti-Black racism proliferated, or, more likely, they lost their freedom. Anthony Johnson and his descendants exemplify how the US took everything from Black people, even if they followed every rule.
An otherwise interesting figure in American history, Anthony Johnson is now reduced to a trope who supposedly disproves the connections between racism and American slavery. His biography reveals the viability of studying reparations, showing that Black Americans are morally entitled to compensation for the historical wrongs committed by systems, not simply individuals. Unless scholars respond publicly, we risk losing this narrative to political gainsayers.