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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 England's Thirteen Colonies to be declared as a slave for life as the result of a civil suit. In an earlier case, John Punch was the first man documented as a slave in the Virginia Colony, sentenced to life in servitude for attempting to escape his indenture.
In one of the earliest freedom suits, Casor argued that he was an indentured servant who had been forced by Anthony Johnson, a free black, to serve past his term; he was freed and went to work for Robert Parker as an indentured servant. Johnson sued Parker for Casor's services. In ordering Casor returned to his master, Johnson, for life, the court both declared Casor a slave and sustained the right of free blacks to own slaves.
Slavery law hardened during Casor's lifetime. 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 based a child's status on that of the father. In 1699 Virginia passed a law deporting all free blacks. But many new families of free people of color continued to be formed during the colonial years by the close relationships among the working class.
At this time, there were only about 300 people of African origin living in the Virginia Colony, about 1% of an estimated population of 30,000. The first group of 20 or so Africans were brought to Jamestown in 1619 as indentured servants. After working out their contracts for passage money to Virginia and completing their indenture, each was granted 50 acres (20 ha) of land (headrights). This enabled them to raise their own tobacco or other crops.
Although most historians believe slavery, as an institution, developed much later, they differ on the exact status of their servitude before slavery was established, as well as differing over the date when this took place. 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 outside the common law. At the time, the colony had no provision for naturalizing foreigners.
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 the Eastern Shore of Virginia. 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, an African employed by Johnson, filed what later became known as a freedom suit. He 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 civil 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, an English 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 v. 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 Johnson to the perpetual service of Casor, the court also gave judicial sanction to the right of free Negroes to own slaves of their own race. In a 1916 article, John H. Russell wrote "Indeed no earlier record, to our knowledge, has been found of judicial support given to slavery in Virginia except as a punishment for a crime." Russell makes this distinction because in 1640 John Punch "was reduced from his former condition of servitude for a limited time to a condition of slavery for life." 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 people "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.
Legal restrictions continued to be made related to 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) were to take the status of the mother, rather than of the father, as was current under English common law. This principle called partus sequitur ventrum was adopted from Roman law. Under this law, children born of a free white mother and Negro father were born free. In 1691, the law was amended; such mixed-race children had to serve as indentured 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 indentured herself for five years.
By the end of the 17th century, colonists were importing many Africans as slaves to satisfy the demand for labor. That Dutch and English 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 of slaves was direct from the West Indies rather than Africa, through the contacts the American colonists maintained with the islands. By an act of 1699, the colony ordered all free blacks deported, virtually defining as slaves all people of African descent who remained in the colony.
Although courts had found miscegenation subject to punishment since 1630, with both parties subject punishment, and statute made it illegal from 1691  new free black families continued to be formed as white women, servant or free, and African men, servant, free or slave, made marriages or unions. Mixed-race children born to free white women took their mother's free status. Working class servants and laborers still lived closely together during this period. By tracing such families, researcher Paul Heinegg has shown that the descendants of these unions are estimated to have made up 80 percent of the "free people of color" listed in the Federal censuses from 1790 to 1810 for the Upper South states. Most families of free people of color before the American Revolutionary War originated in colonial Virginia.
Some historians argue that John Punch, an African who was ordered indentured for life in 1640, should be considered the first documented slave in Virginia. Punch had escaped along with two white indentured servants, one from the Netherlands and the other from Scotland. When they were captured, all three were sentenced to whippings. The Dutchman and the Scot were sentenced to an additional four years of servitude. However, John Punch, the African, was sentenced to servitude for the rest of his life. The difference in penalties makes this one of the first cases to show a racial distinction between black and white indentured servants.
- Heinegg, Paul (2010). "Free African Americans of Virginia, North Carolina,South Carolina, Maryland and Delaware". Retrieved 7 March 2011.
- Edgar Toppin (1973). The Black American in United States History, Allyn & Bacon. ISBN 9781475961720, p. 46
- William J. Wood, "The Illegal Beginning of American Slavery", ABA Journal, 1970, American Bar Association, accessed 2 May 2011
- John Henderson Russell. The Free Negro In Virginia, 1619-1865, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1913, pp. 29-30, scanned text online
- Walsh, Michael (March 8, 2008) White Cargo NYU Press ISBN 0814742963
- 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
- Foner, Philip S. (1980). "History of Black Americans: From Africa to the emergence of the cotton kingdom". Oxford University Press. Archived from the original on 14 October 2013. Cite journal requires
- Heinegg, Paul (2010). "Jeffery-Johnson". Free African Americans of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland and Delaware. Retrieved 7 March 2011., See Preface by Ira Berlin as well. Note: The historian Ira Berlin suggests that early Africans in the colony may have been Atlantic creoles, bilingual and mixed-race descendants of Portuguese or Spanish workers and African women. That may also have been the case for John Casor, whose surname was recorded in colonial records as Cazara and Corsala, in 1672 and 1676, respectively.
- "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.
- 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. Retrieved 6 October 2013.
- Slavery and Indentured Servants Law Library of Congress
- Billings, The Old Dominion in the Seventeenth Century, p. 273
- Tunnicliff Catterall, Helen (June 1968). Judicial Cases Concerning American Slavery and the Negro, Volumes 1 - 5. Reprint: Octagon Books. pp. Pg 93. ISBN 978-0837103433.