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John Casor (surname also recorded as Cazara and Corsala), a servant in Northampton County in the Virginia Colony, in 1655 became the first person of African descent in Britain's Thirteen Colonies to be declared by the county court as a slave for life.
In one of the earliest freedom suits, Casor argued that he was an indentured servant who had been forced to serve past his term. In ordering Casor returned to his master Anthony Johnson, a free black, for life, the court sustained the right of free blacks to own slaves.
Slavery law hardened during Casor's lifetime, making slavery a racial caste widely considered restricted to people of African descent. In 1662, the Virginia colony passed a law incorporating the principle of partus sequitur ventrem, ruling that children of enslaved mothers would be born into slavery, regardless of their father's race or status. This was in contradiction to English common law for English subjects, which held the father determined a child's social status. In 1699 Virginia passed a law deporting all free blacks. But, many new mixed-race families continued to be formed during the colonial years by the close relationships among the working class, whether indentured servant, free or slave, between white women, whose children were born free, and African men.
At this time, there were only about 300 persons of African origin living in the Virginia Colony, about 1% of an estimated 30,000 population. The first group of 20 or so Africans were brought to Jamestown in 1619 and treated by the colonists as indentured servants. After working out their contracts for passage money to Virginia, each was granted 50 acres (20 ha) of land (headrights) after completing the indenture. This enabled them to raise their own tobacco or other crops.
The colonial charter entitled English subjects and their children the rights of the common law, but people of other nations were considered foreigners or aliens. They were considered outside the common law. At the time, the colony had no provision for naturalizing foreigners.
Legal dispute 
Anthony Johnson was an Angolan colonist, one of the original indentured "20 and odd negroes" brought to Jamestown after arriving at Cape Comfort in August 1619. By 1623, Johnson had completed his indenture and was a "free Negro".
During the late 1640s, Johnson moved with his family to Northampton County on Virginia's Eastern Shore. He acquired property on Pungoteague Creek and began raising livestock. He was the first known African landowner in the colony. By July 1651, he had expanded his holdings, which he referred to in a court record as myne owne ground, to 250 acres (100 ha), then a considerable tract by Eastern Shore standards. He was prosperous enough to import five indentured servants of his own and was granted an additional 250 acres (100 ha) as "headrights" for bringing in workers.
In 1653 John Casor, a Black man employed by Johnson, said that he had been imported as a "seaven or eight yeares" indentured servant and that, after attempting to reclaim his indenture, he had been told by Johnson that he didn't have one. According to the court documents, Casor demanded his freedom. "Anthony Johnson was in a feare. Upon this his son in law, his wife and his two sonnes persuaded the said Anthony Johnson to set the said John Casor free."
Casor went to work for Robert Parker, a white colonist who, along with his brother George, later testified that they knew Casor had an indenture. One commentator said that Johnson may have feared losing his headrights land if the case went to court.
Anthony Johnson brought suit in Northampton County court against Robert Parker in 1654 for detaining his "Negro servant, John Casor," saying "Hee never did see any [indenture] but that hee had ye Negro for his life". In the case of Johnson vs Parker, the court of Northampton County upheld Johnson's right to hold Casor as a slave, saying in its ruling of 8 March 1655:
"This daye Anthony Johnson negro made his complaint to the court against mr. Robert Parker and declared that hee deteyneth his servant John Casor negro under the pretence that said negro was a free man. The court seriously consideringe and maturely weighing the premisses, doe fynde that the saide Mr. Robert Parker most unjustly keepeth the said Negro from Anthony Johnson his master ... It is therefore the Judgement of the Court and ordered That the said John Casor Negro forthwith returne unto the service of the said master Anthony Johnson, And that Mr. Robert Parker make payment of all charges in the suit."
In sustaining the claim of Anthony Johnson to the perpetual service of John Casor, the court also gave judicial sanction to the right of free Negroes to own slaves of their own race. The defendant, John Casor, is believed to be the first individual known to be declared a slave in what later became the United States, and Anthony Johnson (black) the first known slaveholder. In 1670 the colonial assembly passed a law prohibiting free and baptized negroes and Indians from purchasing Christians (in this act meaning English or European whites) but allowing them to buy persons "of their owne nation." In this meaning, "purchase" also related to buying the contract services of indentured servants of various "nations".
In 1665 Anthony Johnson and his wife Mary, his son John and his wife Susanna, and their slave John Casor moved to Somerset County, Maryland. Casor remained Johnson's slave for the rest of his life.
The circle continued to close around African servants. The courts likely reasoned, "Insofar as Negroes were heathens, they could never become Englishmen; insofar as they were not Englishmen, they could not be entitled to the protections of the common law", which at the time was limited to English subjects. Africans were considered foreigners or aliens.
In 1662 the colony passed a law that children of enslaved women (who were of African descent and thus foreigners) took the status of the mother, rather than of the father, as under English common law. This principle was called partus sequitur ventrum. Under this law, children born of a free white mother and Negro father were born free. In 1691, the law was amended, the children would now be endentured servants for a period of 30 years while the mother would be fined fifteen pounds sterling. If the mother failed to pay the fine within a month of birth, she was endentured herself for five years.
By the end of the 17th century, colonists were importing many Africans as slaves to satisfy the demand for labor. By an act of 1699, the colony ordered all free blacks deported, virtually defining as slaves all persons of African descent who remained in the colony.
Despite miscegenation having been illegal since 1630, with both parties liable for punishment, new free black families continued to be formed as white women, whether servant or free, and African men, whether servant, free or slave, made marriages or unions; their mixed-race children were born to free white women and took their status. Working class servants and laborers still lived closely together during this period. In tracing such families, the researcher Paul Heinegg has shown that the descendants of such unions are estimated to have made up 80 percent of the free people of color listed in the federal censuses from 1790-1810 for the Upper South states. Thus, most families of free people of color before the American Revolutionary War originated in colonial Virginia.
Some historians argue that John Punch, an African ordered indentured for life in 1640, should be considered the first slave in Virginia. However, Punch was sentenced to serve the remainder of his life in servitude as punishment for escaping while an endentured servant and was thus technically still an endentured servant. Punch had escaped along with two white endentured servants who were both sentenced to 30 strokes of the whip and an additional four years of servitude. This difference in penalties is considered one of the first cases to make a racial distinction between black and white indentured servants.
See also 
- Heinegg, Paul (2010). "Free African Americans of Virginia, North Carolina,South Carolina, Maryland and Delaware". Retrieved 7 March 2011.
- William J. Wood, "The Illegal Beginning of American Slavery", ABA Journal, 1970, American Bar Association, accessed 2 May 2011
- Darrell J. Kozlowski; Jennifer L. Weber (2010). Colonialism. Infobase Publishing. pp. 78–. ISBN 978-1-4381-2890-0. Retrieved 7 March 2011.
- Taunya Lovell Banks, "Dangerous Woman: Elizabeth Key's Freedom Suit - Subjecthood and Racialized Identity in Seventeenth Century Colonial Virginia", 41 Akron Law Review 799 (2008), Digital Commons Law, University of Maryland Law School, accessed 21 Apr 2009
- "Anthony Johnson", Virginia Pilot, 1994, Digital Scholar, Virginia Tech University Library, restricted access
- Billings, Warren (2009). The Old Dominion in the Seventeenth Century: A Documentary History of Virginia, 1606–1700. Pg 286–287. ISBN 1-4429-6126-0.
- Frank W. Sweet (July 2005). Legal History of the Color Line: The Rise and Triumph of the One-Drop Rule. Backintyme. p. 117. ISBN 978-0-939479-23-8. Retrieved 7 March 2011.
- Virginia, Guide to The Old Dominion, WPA Writers' Program. NY: Oxford University Press, 1940, p. 378.
- Russell, John H. (June 1916). "Colored Freemen as Slave Owners in Virginia". Journal of Negro History 1: 233–242.
- Slavery and Indentured Servants Law Library of Congress
- That Dutch and British ships took part in this slave trade prior to 1700 is conjecture as records offer little support. There was limited demand for slaves and trade with America was not profitable, while the trade with the West Indies and South America remained lucrative. The most likely source was direct from the West Indies rather than Africa, through the contacts the American colonists themselves maintained.
—Billings The Old Dominion in the Seventeenth Century, p. 273