It was just a routine errand. Captain Samuel Goldsmith stopped by the farm of Anthony Johnson to receive payment on a debt.
Johnson grew tobacco at Pungoteague Creek, on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. And from his place you could smell the salt of the bay. You could hear the squawking of gulls.
This was early in November, 1654.
As Captain Goldsmith approached the farm he hailed his old friend and then abruptly stopped. Seemingly out of nowhere a black man came running toward him—
He was waving his arms and yelling.
In an unconscious but firm gesture of authority, Captain Goldsmith raised his hand.
"Slow down, boy," he said.
The black man took a deep breath and then explained that his name was John Casor. His master, Anthony Johnson, was holding him illegally.
"I'm an indentured servant," Casor pleaded. He said his contract had been for seven years, but now fourteen had gone by.
Captain Goldsmith shifted uncomfortably in his saddle. He'd known Anthony Johnson for some time now and had no reason to think him a dishonest man.
Still, this was an extraordinary charge and couldn't be ignored.
"Tony, is this true?" he asked his old friend.
"Of course not," Johnson replied. He'd never once seen an indenture for this man because no such indenture existed. John Casor was his servant for life, Johnson said—
Or, put another way, his slave.
And that might have been that, at least from the perspective of historians, except for one important detail.
Anthony Johnson was himself black.
Johnson had first come to Virginia more than thirty years earlier, in 1621.
The ship's manifest listed him as "Antonio a Negro," and he was quickly purchased by the overseers of a James River tobacco plantation. In those days the vast majority of the colony's workforce was white—mostly English indentured servants. They worked a set period of time and then were freed.
Johnson, however, was likely enslaved. Historians believe he may have been born in West Africa, where he could have been taken prisoner in some intertribal war. Or perhaps he'd been kidnapped by African slave traders.
Whatever the case, he was marched to the coast and sold probably to the Portuguese. They, in turn, forced him deep into a slave ship's belly—
Him and hundreds of other pieces of human cargo, chained together for months—
Naked in their own filth—
And taunted by the briny smell of the Atlantic and the distant taunt of gulls.
Over three centuries about twelve and a half million Africans made this so-called Middle Passage—
And nearly two million of them died:
Of disease, punishment, starvation, suicide.
Their bodies were just tossed into the Atlantic.
Business losses. And food for the sharks.
If Antonio was like many others, then he believed the white men planned to kill and eat him. It was a fear actually encouraged by some African elites.
And it meant that arriving in America was almost as terrifying as the voyage itself.
Yet the reality wasn't much better.
More disease, more harsh treatment, backbreaking labor.
This is what Antonio the Negro faced as he disembarked in Virginia.
And that doesn't even account for the Indians.
Antonio went to work on a plantation called Warroskoyack. It was located just downriver from Jamestown near an Indian village of the same name.
Relations with the Indians had been mostly peaceful since the marriage of Pocahontas and John Rolfe. That was back in 1614.
But in the intervening years more and more colonists had moved in. Englishmen like Antonio's owners, the Bennett family, established plantations and began to plant tobacco for export. They traded some with the Indians and on occasion Antonio saw warriors come and go from the plantation. Sometimes they even stayed for a meal.
All that changed on March 22, 1622—just a few months after Antonio's arrival. That's when he witnessed a small group of natives come as if for breakfast. Instead they killed the Englishmen with hatchets. That morning the tribes did this all up and down the James River, wiping out nearly a third of the colony's English population.
That included fifty-two men, women, and children at the Warraskoyack plantation.
And yet somehow Antonio survived this, too.
Later that year, another slave ship arrived in Virginia, this one carrying an African known only as "Mary a Negro Woman." She too became the property of the Bennetts, who optimistically renamed their plantation Bennett's Welcome. Antonio, meanwhile, became Anthony—the first step, perhaps, in a remarkable journey of assimilation.
As for Mary, she was the only woman at Bennett's Welcome in 1625, and of all the men she chose Anthony to be her husband.
One historian put it this way: "Johnson revealed even at this early date one essential ingredient for success in Virginia: good luck."
Of course, one might argue that Anthony Johnson's luck was almost cosmically bad. He had the misfortune of being caught up in African conflicts that may not have been his own. For that matter, he had the misfortune of being black at a time when the great mercantile powers had begun to equate his skin color with enslavement. He had the misfortune of walking right into a war between the English and the Indians that had nothing to do with him.
That he survived all of this is a miracle, and yet it hardly suggests a charmed life.
His union with Mary seems to have been a turning point, however.
They remained together for the rest of their lives and had at least four children. The historical record doesn't tell us how, but they managed to gain their freedom.
And when the Bennetts decamped to the Eastern Shore, the Johnsons, as they were now known, followed.
At marshy Pungoteague Creek, they raised cattle and grew tobacco.
They even bought a slave.
Or did they?
That was the question put before the Northampton County Court after the black man John Casor pleaded for his freedom.
It's remarkable in retrospect, but the court papers make no attempt at connecting race and slavery. In fact, what's most remarkable is how un-remarkable it all seems—
A black man owning a black man.
Some historians suggest that the racial lines of seventeenth-century Virginia were blurred. That the boundaries between black and white would only become firmly established later on.
Others argue that no, the Eastern Shore was an anomaly.
Truth is, men like Anthony Johnson always existed in Virginia. In 1830, for instance, the census found that a whopping 12 percent of all free blacks owned at least one slave.
Color never determined everything, in other words—but it determined enough.
In 1662—or about a decade after Johnson's court case—the General Assembly un-blurred one important line. It pronounced that all the children of all the enslaved black women in Virginia would henceforth, and like their mothers, be enslaved.
A gavel dropped and whole generations disappeared into the maw of plantation labor.
John Casor, though—he was going to have none of that. That morning at Pungoteague, he urgently made his case to Captain Goldsmith.
His indenture had been for seven or eight years, he explained, after which time he had demanded his freedom. Not only had Johnson refused, but he had kept Casor in chains another seven years.
Here you can picture Casor out of breath, his words hanging like a cloud in the crisp November air.
When Johnson said he knew nothing of an indenture, Casor responded that they should ask two brothers, Mr. Robert and Mr. George Parker. They knew about the indenture.
So Captain Goldsmith did. Whether that morning or the next day, he called upon the Parkers. And they supported John Casor. More than that, they took custody of John Casor.
This was something of a risk. The Parkers were meddling with another man's property. There were laws against that sort of thing. But it also seemed to intimidate Anthony Johnson. After consulting his family, he was persuaded to set John Casor free.
No harm done.
Perhaps Anthony Johnson was not as secure in this new white world of his as we had supposed. A year before he and a neighbor had disagreed about a cow. The county appointed two mediators—
They were Captain Goldsmith and Robert Parker, as it happens—
And they found in Johnson's favor.
But now, when directly challenged by these same two men, he backed down.
Was it because Johnson was black and they were white? Or was it because his family was more cautious than he when it came to challenging the powers that be?
Whatever the answer, Johnson soon changed his mind. He overruled his kin and filed suit for the return of his slave.
The court made its ruling on March 8, 1655:
John Casor Negro rightfully belonged to his master Anthony Johnson and should be returned forthwith.
If it still seems odd to us that a white court should affirm the rights of a black man in the early days of colonial Virginia, then perhaps it would be less odd to think of it this way:
The court was affirming a black man's property, and property was always more important than race. At least in slavery days.
In fact, racial lines were established in part to identify and protect that property.
Try to imagine it, though—
A man ripped away from his family in Africa, a man who survived the unspeakable horrors of the Middle Passage and labored under threat of the whip for years—
Now claimed John Casor Negro as his slave.
Assimilation was always an important part of the Virginia experience. But did it ever work better than with Anthony Johnson?
SLAVERY IN EARLY VIRGINIA
Was Anthony Johnson an anomaly or was he representative of some important fact about slavery in the early days of the Virginia colony?
That's what historians continue to argue about. And his case study becomes a point of departure for those important conversations.
What it does not mean, however, is that slavery as it came to be practiced and understood in Virginia is somehow less significant because even blacks owned blacks.
Or less significant because there were white indentured servants before there were black slaves.
Or less significant because some black men were, in fact, indentured servants. Perhaps John Casor wasn't one of them, but others were just the same.
Why does this point matter?
If you log onto Facebook at any given moment, search for "Irish slaves," and then click on the "Latest" tab, this is what you'll find.
All day every day people are sharing articles that claim the Irish were slaves before black people were slaves. That they were treated as bad—heck, even worse than black people ever were.
This is not true, of course. And while the articles cited are often dressed up to look and sound scholarly, they are almost top to bottom false.
What matters, though, to most of the folks who latch on to this and who share it via social media is not its accuracy.
What matters is the political and social claim it allows you to make:
If everyone was a slave—
Whites, blacks, Irish, Italians, Jews, Africans, English—
Then, for all intents and purposes, no one was.
History disappears and arguments that are made upon its authority become meaningless.
What kind of arguments?
Arguments about everything from the importance of the civil rights movement to the origins of blues, jazz, and rock 'n' roll—they all hinge on an understanding of slavery. As we've seen, it's impossible to understand the American Revolution, let alone the establishment of the University of Virginia, without also understanding slavery.
My point here is not to make a political argument myself about any of this.
I only want to say that the spread of this meme—the Irish as the first slaves—matters. Not just because it's wrong but because this history cuts to the very heart of who we are as Virginians and Americans.
Back then to Anthony Johnson and the color lines of early Virginia.
How connected were these two things: slavery and black skin? And how did they come together in the first place?
How is that over time white servants came to be understood as free and black servants came to be understood as enslaved?
How is it that while blacks sometimes found their way to freedom, whites rarely if ever found their way to slavery?
First, it's worth noting that slavery is as old as history itself. There is slavery in the Bible, among the Greeks and Romans, among the Chinese, etc.
It's always had, at its heart, the intention of one group to dominate another. To put itself up as superior and the enslaved group as inferior—and even something less than human.
But nothing about this requires that the enslaved group have dark skin. And, in fact, the word "slave" itself comes from the Latin slavus, meaning Slav.
And yet over time the association between slavery and dark skin began to take hold. There's nothing particularly linear about this, there's no easy cause and effect. There's no moment when the world went from no anti-black racism to anti-black racism. But several important factors come into play.
Even when slavery was not specifically racialized, slaves were still subject to certain longstanding stereotypes. They were considered to be ugly, course, less intelligent, and even to have darker skin.
All of these traits were considered to be symptoms of the slaves' relationship to labor. Until fairly recently, labor has always been understood to be an inherently demeaning activity. It reflected your low status in society and helped to cause it.
In other words, working in the dirt and being exposed to the sun overhead is what made you course and ugly. And it's what gave you dark skin. Add to that traditional associations of blackness with evil, and you are doubly cursed as a laborer.
Of course, nowadays being tan is considered fashionable. Being in the sun is considered healthy. And working hard a virtue.
The historian David Brion Davis makes what I think is a really interesting point. The abolitionist movement was the first organized, principled, philosophical opposition to slavery in the history of the world. But rather than ask why it took so long to appear, we might ask instead why it arrived when it did, which is to say during the Enlightenment.
According to Davis, it's because the Enlightenment for the first time sought to elevate and ennoble labor. Only then could we think of the people doing the labor as something more than human oxen.
Anyway, I don't want to get too hung up on this question of race, so I'll try to move quickly. The point is that a sense of dark skin and slavery had long been connected, if somewhat abstractly. Then during the Middle Ages the Muslims began to conquer much of the civilized world, including North Africa and parts of the interior. They were the first to raid sub-Saharan Africa for slaves.
Many of the very specific negative stereotypes associated with black Africans—stereotypes that helped justify African slavery for centuries—originated with these Muslim conquerors. They then passed these stereotypes on pretty much wholesale to the Christians they fought with and who eventually conquered them in many places.
These Christians, meanwhile, began to see African slaves as hugely convenient. The Portuguese in particular began to experiment with sugar plantations on islands off the coast of Africa and found African labor cheap, conveniently located, and resistant to disease. When those plantations moved to the New World, so did the African labor.
Moving on, the Curse of Ham is something … well, totally different. It's a story from Genesis in which Noah—and this is post-Flood—drinks too much wine and passes out. One of Noah's sons, Ham, saw his father naked and told his brothers, Shem and Japheth. They covered him up, but when Noah found out what happened he became so angry he cursed not Ham, but Ham's son Canaan to a life of slavery.
Various interpretations over the millennia, some of them sort of reasonable, many bordering on ridiculous, have mined the text for evidence that Canaan was the ancestor of all African slaves. These same interpretations posit his brother Shem to be the original Semite, and brother Japheth—well, he must have been the father of everyone else.
I don't have much more to say about this except that you should never underestimate the power of Genesis to justify something for you.
Okay, one final factor that helps us understand how Africans came to be understood as slaves simply because of the color of their skin. And it's something we've already encountered, way back when we were talking about Paquiquineo, the Virginia Indian who, for a time anyway, transformed himself into a Spaniard.
I mentioned the Spanish concept of limpieza de sangre, or blood cleansed of all non-Christian influences. The idea began around the time Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews in 1492. Some folks converted to Christianity rather than leave, and for centuries after that you had folks in Spanish obsessing over whether their neighbors were really Christian or just hidden Jews.
They developed a way of thinking that suggested that Jewishness, or Christianity for that matter, lived in your blood. Converting was not enough.
And this became a precursor to racial ideologies we are so familiar with these days.
Much, much more could be said, but for our purposes I think this helps us begin to understand how slavery, over time, and through a number of different sources, became racialized.
It doesn't help explain Anthony Johnson, though.
How did Virginia go from a place where Anthony Johnson was possible to a place where someone like him was nearly impossible?
It's easier to say when it happened than how.
The first Africans came to Virginia in 1619. Fifty years later, in 1670, white servants still outnumbered African slaves four to one. And yes, the distinction was largely there even then: if you were white, you were an indentured servant. If you were black, you were a slave—
Exceptions such as Anthony Johnson notwithstanding.
But within twenty years, the numbers had reversed themselves. Suddenly black slaves outnumbered white servants four to one.
What happened? Historians call this the Origins debate and they have a number of different explanations.
Many historians have looked at this date spread and said, hey, what happened between 1670 and 1690. Well, the biggest thing was Bacon's Rebellion, an uprising of white men against the governor in 1676. It had nothing to do with slavery but that doesn’t mean we can't, as historians, work around that. The theory is that Virginia elites saw white men rising up and feared for the colony's stability and, especially, their own future status.
They had to figure out how to create a society in which this sort of thing didn't happen again. Such a society would include an underclass that was more securely subjugated—slaves, in other words.
This is closely related to idea I mentioned several weeks ago in relation to Patrick Henry and other Founding Fathers: the idea that slavery was necessary to the idea of American ideas of liberty. Go around spouting off about liberty and lower class whites might get ideas.
Largely remove that lower class, however, and replace them with slaves—
That might be result in some cognitive dissonance, but also a much more stable society.
That's the idea, anyway, and some historians trace it to Bacon's Rebellion.
Other historians suggest that there was a significant rise in anti-black racism at this time. This rise was both a symptom of increased use of African slaves, especially in the Caribbean, and the cause of their continued use.
Both of these previous two theories are, at their core, ideological. Based on ideas of freedom and race. You can rarely go wrong if you follow the money, however. So one important theory as to the transition from white servants to black slaves is economic:
The economy began to improve in Britain and fewer people saw indenturing themselves in America—with its disease, hard labor, and high mortality rate—as a smart thing. Fewer people were desperate, in other words, and the supply of this labor force began to dry up. But it dried up right around the time when Virginia needed a large, continually resupplying labor force. That's because the colony had finally discovered its ticket to long-term security and wealth: tobacco.
As it happens, right around this time England got directly involved in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Prior to this, the trade was dominated by the Portuguese and the Dutch. Anthony Johnson probably came to Virginia via a Portuguese trader (hence the name Antonio) that sold its cargo in the Caribbean. And some of those were resold to Virginia.
The English realized it would be better business to cut out the middle man and get involved in the trade themselves. So in 1660 they founded the Royal African Company. Slaves soon became much cheaper and easily available in Virginia.
In the end, slavery made better social sense and better economic sense for Virginians. No need to worry about lifetime slaves clamoring about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. No need to worry about them working off an indenture.
And even better, slaves were an investment that paid hefty interest.
You might buy a car and it immediately begins to depreciate. But—and I apologize for being crude here—if you buy an enslaved woman of childbearing years, she can make you money. She can give birth to children who will be worth as much or more than she is.
This was codified in 1662, when the General Assembly passed a law that stated "all children borne in this country shalbe held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother."
This made slavery an inherited condition. It already had been unofficially. Otherwise there would have been no argument in the case of Anthony Johnson and John Casor. But now it had become law.
And there was a purpose behind making that condition dependent not on either parent but on the mother.
Again, forgive me for being crude here, but imagine a white man who takes sexual advantage of one of his slaves and the product of that liaison, especially if that child is male, might make some claim on the white man and his property. That would be a disaster.
To frame the law this way was like a giving a wink to white rapists throughout Virginia. And we know this was on the lawmakers' minds because, in the very next part of the law—as you can see here—they insist that no, this definitely shouldn't happen, there will be a fine, no seriously, don't do this thing we have just made it really easy for you to do …
Why is it that someone with half white and half black parentage has long been considered all black?
Thank the Spanish, with their limpieza de sangre, and than the General Assembly, with their Act XII.
So—the lifetime enslavement of Africans. It doesn't just solve a labor problem. It creates wealth. Just the other day I read a very technical description of this that I confess to have not understood very well—but slaves literally become money for Virginians. No longer are they simply necessary for making money through tobacco. Now they are the tobacco. They are the money!
How did this work exactly?
Well, first I want to fast forward a bit—to 1800. Slavery has been commoditized and racialized for more than a century now. So how has it fared in those years? What is its status?
It's August 24, 1800, to be precise, and we're just north of Richmond at a place called Littlepage's Bridge, where the Hanover Courthouse road crosses the Pamunkey River.
It's late and slaves from nearby farms have convened under the stars to finalize their plans for rebellion.
George Smith is there; his owner is the widow Ann Smith. Ben Woolfolk, rented out to work on the nearby William Young farm—he's there too. As are Scipio, Edmund, and Thornton.
And of course here's their leader, Gabriel, a blacksmith owned by Thomas Henry Prosser of Henrico County.
Although conspirators are widely scattered across the area—all the way from Caroline County south to Richmond—the ever-persistent Gabriel is still recruiting.
One night he might whisper to a group of field hands that he has 500 men ready to rise up. Another night he'll say a thousand, or maybe even 5,000. Whatever it takes to kick them out of the torpor of their oppression and juice them up with a little courage.
Gabriel is an outsized man—big in body and soul. Others flock to him. But the plan they meet at the bridge to discuss—that actually originated with a slave named Sam Byrd Jr.
It's bold, violent, and, they hope, decisive.
The idea was to make a nighttime attack on Richmond. A party of about fifty men would slip into the lower part of town and set fire to what were then mostly wooden buildings in order to draw the city's residents into fighting the blaze.
Meanwhile, the main column of rebels would first attack white residents north of the capital and then swarm into upper Richmond. There they would overcome the few guards who watched over muskets and ammunition stored at the Capitol building, the penitentiary, and the public magazine.
They would then seize the governor—James Monroe.
If all went according to plan, they would finish by killing the by-now-exhausted firefighters.
At which point—and it's remarkable to imagine this, even now, more than 200 years later—Richmond would be theirs.
That was the plan anyway, and the meeting at Littlepage's Bridge convened that night of August 24th with the understanding that these men would come to fight six days hence:
On August 30th.
Movies like Gone with the Wind, but also pretty much everything else, gives us the idea that the Civil War marked the passing of something people like to call the "Old South." That slavery, good or bad, was an institution that had been around for hundreds of years in America. And while yes, perhaps it had become outdated, ironically that only made it more difficult white Southerners to give up. It was tradition, after all. It was the way things had always been done down here.
The reality, as you might imagine, is much more complicated.
Slavery was never a static institution. In fact, there is a professor here at UVA who has written of his reluctance to call it an institution at all. Institutions are stable over time, they follow certain rules. But slavery was always in flux, always contingent on time and place. The demands of now.
It was always changing, in other words. And the reason I zoomed in on this moment at Littlepage's Bridge is because the year 1800 happens to fall in and around one of these many moments of huge and critical change.
And to understand those changes is to understand a bit of why certain kinds of resistance happened at certain times and in certain places.
In his report to the General Assembly later in 1800, James Monroe said, more or less, "But we though it was going so well!" He said that since the Revolution, living conditions for enslaved men, women, and children in Virginia had improved.
The importation of slaves to Virginia from Africa and even from the West Indies had been banned in 1778.
The ability of slave owners to privately manumit, or free, individual slaves became legal in 1782. (Although consider that prior to that date, it hadn't been legal to free a slave even you had wanted to.)
And in 1796, a Virginia jurist named St. George Tucker presented a plan to gradually free all the slaves in Virginia—although it's worth mentioning that the General Assembly completely ignored it.
Anyway, the point is that by 1800 it was easy for men such as Governor Monroe to convince themselves that things were headed in the right direction. But there's another way of looking at things.
Remember that picture from Gone with the Wind of the big, Old South plantation? To the extent that these large spreads, populated by hundreds of slaves working in the fields, ever existed in Virginia, they had begun to disappear in 1800.
That's because of two laws written by Thomas Jefferson.
Both laws abolished longstanding ways of handling large estates. An entail on an estate bounded whoever inherited the estate to keep it intact and pass it on to the next generation. Entails on slaves did the same thing—required that groups of slaves not be sold enough piecemeal.
Jefferson wrote the law abolishing entail and the General Assembly passed it in 1776.
Primogeniture was related in that it required that that estate be passed on to the eldest son. Jefferson wrote the law abolishing entail and the General Assembly passed it in 1785.
A dozen years later, in 1796, the same year as St. George Tucker wrote his plan to abolish slavery, the General Assembly abolished entails on slaves.
Why does this matter? The point of entail and primogeniture was to preserve land, wealth, and social standing. The point of getting rid of it was to promote more equality among white people. But it also had an effect on black people.
Subdividing estates and dispersing slaves had the tragic effect of breaking up many families. It also put many slaves on the market and led to many more white Virginians owning slaves—although each slave owner, on average, owned fewer slaves. When more Virginians owned or rented slaves, it meant that more of them had a direct investment in slavery.
Which is to say they were more inclined to defend it. It became more entrenched.
Ironic considering the origins of Jefferson's laws in the first place.
Other things were happening at this time. Article I, Section 9 of the United States Constitution allowed the government to ban American participation in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade beginning in 1808.
We like to think of this moment, if we think of it at all, as a win for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and a loss for slavery.
But it was more complicated than that. The primary importers of slaves at the time were South Carolina and Georgia. Virginia, on the other hand, found it to be more economical to sell slaves that it already had. This has to do with a number of factors—because of climate and work conditions, slaves lived longer in Virginia. The population here increased naturally when it did not in other places. In 1800 the enslaved population in Virginia numbered 346,671 slaves. The next closest state, South Carolina, had less than half that number (146,151).
But as long as South Carolina bought slaves directly from Africa, Virginia had no market.
Article I, Section 9 was a compromise, in other words. We'll let South Carolina receive Trans-Atlantic slave ships for another twenty years, then we'll open the market up to Virginia.
And that happened in 1807, or a few years after that meeting on Littlepage's Bridge.
A few years earlier, in 1794, Eli Whitney patented the cotton gin, which made it much easier and efficient to prepare cotton for market. Cotton helped fuel the industrialization of Britain and of the northern states here, so there was a huge market for the stuff.
Which meant that southern planters had an interest in planting as much as they could and therefore needed as many slaves as they could. It was terrible work and bad conditions. Those slaves they had would not necessarily live long and so the planters would need more. And keep needing more.
Enter Virginia. With the Trans-Atlantic slave trade abolished, Virginia became the new supplier. Slaves were sold by the one's, two's, three's, by the dozens, and by the hundreds at slave auctions across the state but especially in Richmond.
They were then literally walked south—often chained together for hundreds of miles over several weeks—in what were called coffles.
Scenes like this one were common in Virginia.
So what's the upshot of all this?
Earlier I mentioned that the Trans-Atlantic slave trade resulted in about twelve and a half million Africans making the Middle Passage. Of those who survived, only about 128,000, or about 1 percent of the total, came to Virginia and Maryland. That's between 1500 and 1866.
Now compare that to the number of African Americans whowere transported from the Upper South—mostly Virginia—to the Deep South between 1790 and 1860:
More than 1,000,000.
Which takes us back to this idea I mentioned early:
Slavery didn't just solve a labor problem. It created wealth. Slaves literally became money for Virginians. No longer are they simply necessary for making money through tobacco. Now they are the tobacco. They are the money!
And nearly every time one of those slaves was put on the auction block and sold, a family was destroyed.
A life was shortened—and in all sorts of ways made immeasurably worse. So no, despite what James Monroe argued in 1800, the lives of enslaved men, women, and children were not better than they had been.
In very important ways they were much worse.
And African Americans resisted these harrowing, monumental changes—
By running away like Henry Brown or Isaac Bee.
Or by taking up arms, like Gabriel.
Speaking of Gabriel. The plan was to rendezvous on August 30, killing white slaveholders north of Richmond and then taking the city itself. They had refashioned scythe blades into swords and manufactured pikes by affixing bayonets to the ends of poles. They had gathered gunpowder and musket balls and, with the cooperation of an enslaved man who worked at the Capitol building in Richmond, had obtained keys to the building.
So they were all ready to go except …
More than that, it really poured and word was sent around that they would postpone their attack for a day.
Except that in the meantime, two enslaved men, Pharaoh and Tom, became nervous.
Obviously the great challenge of any plot like Gabriel's is maintaining secrecy. This was made all the more difficult because, as we have seen, slaves were widely dispersed across the countryside. To communicate with more than just a handful required risky nighttime traveling. It required trusting people across different farmsteads, people you didn't always know too well.
The longer they waited, the more dangerous it all became. And because of the rain, the plotters waited one day too long.
Pharaoh and Tom labored on one of those farms north of Richmond where the plot was hatched. On August 30 they traveled to Richmond, found their owner, Mosby Sheppard, and told him all the details of the planned rebellion.
Sheppard in terms passed the word to family members and then wrote this letter to Governor Monroe.
"Sir, I have Just been informed that the Negroes were to rise …"
As you might imagine, it didn't take too long to shut things down.
By December 1, 72 enslaved men had been tried in Henrico, Louisa, Dinwiddie, and Caroline counties and in the city of Richmond.
Of those 72, 26 were found guilty and hanged.
8 were transported out of state—which is to say, they were sold into the Deep South.
13 more were convicted but pardoned by the governor, who was worried they were actually executing too many people. He even sought his friend President Jefferson's advice on the matter. This was after 10 men had been hanged.
Jefferson responded by suggesting that the Commonwealth considering quitting while it was ahead. But Monroe apparently didn't take his advice, at least not right away.
For his part, Gabriel was tried, convicted, and hanged on October 10.
This is the spot, on Broad Street in Richmond, where his life ended.
So what happened next? I've sort of half-jokingly thought of the history of slavery in Virginia as taking on the arc of a really bad marriage.
It seemed like a great idea at the time—both socially and economically—but then, you know, it created more problems that it solved. But by the time you figure that out you've become way too invested. So what do you do? You convince yourself that it was the right thing to do. You idealize the relationship and basically live in a fantasy world.
Not that I've ever been there. I'm just saying that this is what happened with Virginia and slavery. By the turn of the nineteenth century, plenty of people had begun to contemplate the moral complications of slavery not to mention the dangers of it.
St. George Tucker, as we've seen, came up with a plan to end it. His cousin, George Tucker—whom we met last week; he was one of the original professors at the University of Virginia—wrote a novel designed to expose some of the ills of slavery.
After Nat Turner's revolt in 1831, the General Assembly even openly debated whether to end slavery altogether.
But by this time there's just too much money in it. An academic paper published in 2011 attempted to calculate the wealth tied up in slaves in the South and put it in today's monetary terms.
The numbers are pretty mind-boggling.
In 1850, $7.3 trillion was tied up in slaves, versus $8.8 trillion in non-slave wealth.
A decade later that gap had closed even more: $10.2 trillion compared with $10.9 trillion.
Now think of that in terms of the United States gross domestic product from 2013: 16.77 trillion dollar. You're talking about 60 percent of the GDP—in today's numbers, again—tied up in slavery.
At this point are you just going to say, you know, this is the wrong thing to do, keeping people in chains? Or are you going to look for some way to justify it?
I'm simplifying here. Economists continue to debate whether these kinds of things are so easily understood purely in numbers, and whether economic concerns outweigh moral ones as a rule.
But putting it back in the marriage terms. You've got a really nice house. A really nice car. A family membership at the club. You don't easily walk away from all that.
So what happens is you get instead George Fitzhugh.
Of Caroline County, as it happens. Not too far from Littlejohn's Bridge.
He was perhaps the most outspoken pro-slavery polemicists in antebellum Virginia and among those who helped change the conversation about slavery from one in which the institution was a necessary evil to one in which it was a positive good. (Those, by the words, are the very words Fitzhugh himself uses.)
Slaves in the South are given food, shelter, medical treatment, and Christianity. They are treated as family. Compare that, Fitzhugh writes, to the factory workers of the North or in Great Britain—brutally exploited by cigar-chewing capitalists. They are the cannibals, he argues—these capitalists.
But we're not stupid. We can also see the double meaning of his title: that without their loving masters in the South, slaves would be reduced to their cannibal selves too.
Slavery, in other words, was good for everyone.
And just like that—well, not really, this ideological project took decades and kept on going even after the Civil War, in fact was going strong when Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone with the Wind, but you know what I mean—
Just like that, the Old South was invented out of whole cloth.
The big question today was Why does slavery in Virginia matter?
I can't really answer that for you. I mean, I have my opinions, but ultimately it's up to you to decide. But I want you to notice that this is not history that you can easily find in the landscape of Virginia.
The big houses at Monticello, Mount Vernon, and Montpelier still exist. But until recently they came absent much evidence of the enslaved people who lived and worked there.
There is nothing left to help us remember the strange and remarkable life of Anthony Johnson, and only easily missed highway markers to remind us of the would-be rebel Gabriel.
It's not a new observation to say that the monuments in Virginia are to the slave holders.
I'm not suggesting any particular remedy for that except—
Well, except for taking this history seriously. For remembering.
So I want to add a quick epilogue to all of this to show you just how shaky that memory can be sometimes. In the 1930s, as part of one of Roosevelt's New Deal programs, a band of oral historians spread out across Virginia and the South interviewing former slaves.
A group called the Virginia Writers' Project included those interviews in a book they called the Negro in Virginia, published in 1940—or just a year after the movie version of Gone with the Wind.
In a chapter on the punishment of slaves, the editor included the recollections of one Henrietta King, of West Point, Virginia.
"See dis face?" King said to her white interlocutor. "See dis mouf all twist over here so's I can't shet it? See dat eye? All raid, ain't it? Been dat way fo' eighty-some years now. Guess it gonna stay dat way tell I die. Well, ole Missus made dis face dis way."
She then went on to tell the gruesome tale of being punished for stealing a piece of candy. I won't recount it here. You can find it in the encyclopedia. But when the head of the Virginia Writers Project read it, she was appalled. More than that, she was skeptical. After all, slavery wasn't that bad, was it?
It was yeoman's work, the work of George Fitzhugh and Margaret Mitchell, convincing us that slavery wasn't such a bad thing. But they did their jobs well.
Anyway, this woman, the one who was skeptical—Eudora Richardson—
To her credit, she went and found Henrietta King. She lived in West Point.
So Richardson drove there, asked around until she found the house, and then interviewed her herself. Saw the face, the mouth that was twisted and refused to shut even after eighty years.
And she believed.
But she had to see it herself.
We don't have that opportunity.
I looked Henrietta King up in the census and found her address.
And then found the spot on Google Maps where she had lived when Ms. Richardson came and found her.
Today it's an empty field.