On 8 March 1655, John Casor of Virginia became the first person to be legally declared a slave for life.
The administrators of Virginia, Britain’s first North American colony, offered land to any of their colonists who could import more colonists. There were many who were willing to make the trip, but who lacked the money for their passage. So Virginia introduced the concept of ‘indentured servants’ – those who gave their labour for free in return for their benefactor having paid their passage over. By the time most indentured servants had completed their term of service, they had learned a skill that would earn them a living.
One such example and one of Virginia’s original indentured servants, arriving in 1619, was an African named Anthony Johnson who, by 1623, had worked out his period of indenture and had obtained his freedom.
Johnson, over the years, worked his way up to be a successful tobacco planter and, in turn, employed five Africans as indentured servants, one being John Casor. Once Casor had completed his term of seven years, he requested his freedom, a request that Johnson turned down. Against his better judgement, Johnson was persuaded by his family to allow Casor to work for a white colonist nearby called Robert Parker.
Johnson v Parker
But Johnson had a change of mind and decided not to let the matter rest. He took the case to the County Court of Northampton County, Virginia, claiming that Parker had taken his “negro servant” and declaring that, by rights, “Thee had ye Negro for his life.”
On 8 March 1655, the Court found in Johnson’s favour, and demanded that Parker return Casor to his original owner and pay damages.
John Casor was duly returned to Johnson and, as a result, became the first man in the North American colonies to be legally classed as a lifelong slave, and, consequently, made Johnson the first legally recognised slave holder in American history, setting the precedent for lifelong slavery. Casor did indeed remain in Johnson’s service until his death.
Johnson died in 1670 and his 300 acres of land passed, not to his children, but by court ruling, to a white colonist. The courts declared that “as a black man, Anthony Johnson was not a citizen of the colony.”