The first generation.
No one knows the hour or the day of the Black landing. But there is not the slightest doubt about the month. John Rolfe, who betrayed Pocahontas and experimented with tobacco leaves, was there; and he said, in a letter to his superior, that the ship arrived "about the latter end of August" in 1619. Rolfe had a nose for nicotine, but he was obviously deficient in historical matters, for he added gratuitously that the ship "brought not anything but 20 and odd Negroes." Concerning which the most charitable thing to say is that John Rolfe was probably pulling his superior's leg. For in the context of the meaning of America, it can be said without exaggeration that no ship ever called at an Amer-ican port with a more important cargo. In the hold of that ship, in a manner of speaking, was the whole gorgeous panorama of Black America, was jazz and the spirituals and the Electric Slide. Bird was there and Bigger and Malcolm and millions of other X's and crosses, along with Mahalia singing, Gwendolyn Brooks rhyming, Duke Ellington composing, James Brown grunting, Paul Robeson emoting, and Michael Jordan dunking. It was all there in embryo in the 160-ton ship.
The ship that sailed up the James on a day we will never know was the beginning of America, and, if we are not careful, the end. That ship brought the black gold that made capitalism possible in America; it brought slave-built Monticello and slave-built Mount Vernon and the Cotton Kingdom and the graves on the slopes of Gettysburg. It was all there, illegible and inevitable, on that August day. That ship brought the blues to America, it brought soul, and a man with eyes would have seen it, would have said that the seeds of a Joe Louis are here, would have announced that a King was coming and that a Du Bois would live and die, would have foretold agonies and pains and funerals and 400 years of Sundays and Saturday nights. A man with eyes, I say, would have seen all that in the 20 Black seeds planted that day and in the bad faith of Whiteness that would manure them. He would have seen it all, and he would have stood up and announced to his startled contemporaries that this ship heralds the beginning of the first Civil War and the second.
As befitting a herald of fate, the ship was nameless, and mystery surrounds it until this day. Where did this ship come from? It came from some unidentified spot on the high seas where she robbed a Spanish frigate of a cargo of Africans destined for the West Indies. The captain of this vessel, a shadowy figure named Jope, "ptended," John Rolfe noted, that he was in need of food, and he offered to exchange Black flesh for "victualle." The deal was arranged, and 20 Black men and women debarked and looked around to see what shore the tide of fate had brought them.
It would not have escaped the new immigrants that fate had made them a party to an uncertain and illegal adventure. There was something fragile, something furtive about this community. And yet there was also an air of anticipation that was doubtlessly related to the stirring events that coincided with the arrival of the Jamestown Twenty. In the months preceding their arrival, the colony had installed the new House of Burgesses, shipped its first big load of tobacco to England, formalized a new system of White servitude, inaugurated a new system of private property, and welcomed a shipload of brides, who were promptly purchased at the going rate of 120 pounds of tobacco each. Thus, White servitude, Black servitude, private property, "representative democracy," and bride purchase were inaugurated in America at roughly the same time.
Despite or perhaps because of all this activity, Virginia, in August, 1619, was a community of fear. The White settlers were doing something wrong, and they knew it. They were systematically appropriating the land of the Americans, i.e., the Indians, who had greeted them with civility and had provided most of the provisions that had enabled them to survive. And so they were consumed with anxieties and vague fears, tending, as contemporary reports indicate, to see an enemy or a potential enemy behind every bush and in every shadow.
It was across the high voltage lines of these fears and in the context of a socioeconomic situation defined by labor scarcity that Black confronted White for the first time in English America.
Centuries later, the historian must view the first meeting of these two groups with an astonishment equivalent to their own. The scene flickers with a hundred ironies and invites a thousand idle reflections. What was the first word to pass between Black and White? What did the Whites think of the Blacks? And what--pray tell-did the Blacks think of the Whites? On these and other matters, the meager record is vexatiously silent, giving us neither the faces nor the passions of the first Black Americans. We know from other sources that the group was composed of roughly the same number of males and females. We also know that most of the immigrants had Spanish names. Three of the men were named Antonio or Antoney, and one of the women was named Isabell. One man, however retained his African identity. His name or at least the English approximation was Jiro.
In years to come an intricate controversy would develop over the meaning of that first meeting on the James. Certain scholars, reading 20th-century preoccupation into the minds of the first White settlers, would say, without a figleaf of evidence, that the first White settlers saw Black and immediately started painting Jim Crow signs. The record does not support that view. On the contrary, the record clearly shows that the first sign Black people saw in America was a welcome sign. The colonists needed labor. They were unconcerned at that point about its color or national origin. The 20 Black immigrants represented labor power. And it was as labor, indentured labor, that Blacks entered the world that was to become the United States of America.
Let it be said at the outset that there was nothing unusual about the mode of transportation or the price paid for the first Black immigrants. Most of the first White settlers came the same way, and most of them were sold, as the first Blacks were sold, by the captains of ships or the agents of captains of ships. To come right out with it, America--in the beginning--was a land of the hunted and the unfree. For almost 200 years, the land was inhabited largely by a population of Black, Red, and White bondsmen. Most of these bondsmen, in the beginning, were indentured servants. That is to say, they were temporary slaves who sold themselves or were sold by others to the colonies or individual planters for a stipulated number of years (five, seven or more) in order to pay the cost of their passage. Finally, and most important, if hardest for us to understand, race did not have the same meaning in 1619 that it has today. The first White settlers were organized around concepts of class, religion, and nationality, and they apparently had little or no understanding of the concepts of race and slavery. There was no word then to name the crime. The legal documents identified Whites as Englishmen and Christians. The word White, with all its burden of arrogance and guilt, did not come into common usage until the latter part of the century.
For all these reasons, and for others as well, the first generation of Blacks fell into roughly the same socioeconomic category as the first White immigrants. Not only in Virginia but also in New England and New York, the first Blacks were integrated into a forced labor system that had little or nothing to do with skin color. That came later. But in the interim, a fateful 40-year period of primary importance in the history of America, Black men and women worked side by side with the first generation of Whites, cultivating tobacco, clearing the land, and building roads and houses.
In the months and years that followed the Jamestown Landing, the Black population of Virginia grew slowly and uncertainly. In 1621 the James arrived from England with a number of immigrants, including one Black man, Antonio. The next year the Margaret and John brought Mary, another English sojourner. In 1623 the Swan brought still another Black from England, John Pedro. By this time Blacks had integrated six out of the 23 White settlements in Virginia.
At this juncture or slightly later--the record is not clear--there occurred three events of pivotal importance. The first event was mournful. On some unspecified date between April, 1622, and February 16, 1623, the first Black person died in English America. It is significant that we know neither the name nor the sex of the victim nor the circumstances of the death. The cold and careless record simply lists the death of "one Negar" at West and Sherlow Hundred, a small settlement on the north side of the James in the vicinity of Charles City. This was the first drop of pain, the first drop of blood, in a dry basin that would become a river and then an ocean.
Of equal or perhaps greater concern were the other two events. In late 1623 or early 1624, Antoney and Isabell, two of the first Black arrivals, brought what might have been a shipboard romance to a significant conclusion by marrying. Isabell was soon brought to bed with what was probably the first Black child born in English America. The child, a boy named William, was taken from his home in Elizabeth City to Jamestown and baptized before the cedar chancel in the Church of England. William apparently had no last name. He enters the record thus, the first of a long Black line defined by X's and question marks.
There occurred a postscript to this event that throws additional light on the methodology of some White historians. In an early edition of J.C. Hotten's Lists of Emigrants to America, the first Black family in America was correctly identified as "Antoney Negro: Isabell Negro; and William theire Child Baptised." But in the second edition of the work, the entry was modified to read "Anthony, negro, Isabell, a negro, and William her child, baptised." Thus, with a stroke of pen, Negro was reduced in importance, the Black family was eliminated ("theire" became "her") and Black reality was forced into the preconceived molds of the chronicler's mind.
Across the years that followed the official muster, the Black population grew by natural additions and importations. And by 1649 officials were able to report that "there are in Virginia about 15,000 English, and of Negroes brought thither, 300 good servants."
Sharing the same accommodations, the same situation, and the same enemy, the first Black and White Americans, aristocrats excepted, developed strong bonds of sympathy and mutuality. There was no barrier between them, and circles of community and solidarity developed and widened. Of particular interest in this connection is the fact that Black and White servants often made common cause against the master class. They often ran away together and on several occasions staged interracial revolts.
In the pioneer settlements and on the first plantations, Black and White servants were "brought together," as one White historian put it delicately, "in intimate and close association." This naturally led to many informal and formal relationships. The grand outcome, as Peter Fonntaine, a contemporary witness, testified, was that Colonial Virginia "swarmed" with mulatto children. This was not solely, as some believe, the result of the casual exploitation of Black women by White masters. On the contrary, as James Hugo Johnston proved in an excellent study, Race Relations in Virginia and Miscegenation in the South, "the larger part of such race mixture" was due to the union of the Black male and the White female.
Within the confines of this system of indeterminacy, which can only be called equality of oppression, Blacks fared about as well as Whites. Many Black servants, like many White servants, worked for a specified number of years and were freed. Some Blacks served longer terms than most Whites, but some Blacks also served shorter terms than the four-to-seven years required of most Whites.
Nothing could better illustrate the odyssey of the first generation of Blacks than the life of Anthony Johnson, one of the first Black immigrants. Before very many years passed, Johnson was released from servitude and married Mary Johnson, who also came to the colony from England and who also shared his servitude on the Bennett plantation in Wariscoyack. He obviously prospered, for the year 1651 found him in Northampton County on the Eastern Shore, and here, for a tantalizing moment, the picture becomes clear. In that year Johnson imported and paid for five servants, some of whom were White, and was granted 250 acres of land on the basis of the headright system, which permitted planters to claim 50 acres of land for each individual brought to the colony. The abstract of the deed, as recorded, reads as follows:
ANTHONY JOHNSON, 250 acs. Northampton Co., 24 July 1651,...At great Naswattock Cr., being a neck of land bounded on the S.W. by the maine Cr. & on S.E. & N.W. by two small branches issuing out of the mayne Cr. Trans. of 5 pers: tho. Bemrose, Peter Bughby, Antho. Cripps, Jno. Gesorroro, Richard Johnson.
Anthony Johnson was hardly atypical; other Blacks owned substantial property in other counties. In 1656, for instance, Benjamin Doyle imported six persons and received a patent for 300 hundred acres of land in Surry County. In this same period some Blacks bought and leased land from Whites.
One can hardly doubt, in the face of these examples, that the first generation of Blacks had, as J.H. Russell pointed out, "about the same industrial or economic opportunities as the free White servant."
Scarcely less surprising is the fact that the first generation of Blacks voted and participated in public life. It was not until 1723, in fact, that Blacks were denied the right to vote in Virginia. According to Albert E. McKinley, Blacks also voted in North Carolina until 1715, in South Carolina until 1701, and in Georgia until 1754. Blacks not only voted, but they also held public office. There was a Black surety in York County, Va., in the first decades of the 17th century, and a Black beadle in Lancaster County, Va.
Somewhat similar factors appear to have been at work in New York, where the Black landing preceded the English or even the name New York. When Peter Minuit negotiated the flagrantly fraudulent deal in which he "bought" Manhattan Island from the Indians for a handful of beads and trinkets, there were apparently some Blacks in the Dutch population. At any rate, there are records from 1626 identifying eleven Blacks--about 5 percent of the non-Indian population--who were listed as servants of the Dutch West India Company. The eleven "pioneers by proxy," to use Roi Ottley's apt phrase, were all males; and they, like the first Black Virginians, were apparently seized on the high seas from the Spaniards. Two years after the landing of the 11 males, the Dutch imported three Black women who were identified as "Angolans." These were apparently the first non-Indian women in New York.
In 1644, 18 years after their arrival, the "Dutch Negroes," as they were called, staged the first Black legal protest in America, filing a pointed petition for freedom. Unbelievable as it may seem in retrospect, the petition was granted. In February, 1644, the Council of New Netherland freed the 11 Blacks because they had "served the Company 17 or 18 years" and had been "long since promised their freedom on the same footing as other free peoples in New Netherland." The 11 persons freed were Paul d'Angola, Big Manuel, Little Manuel, Manual de Gerrit de Rens, Simon Congo, Anthony Portuguese, Gracia, Peter Santome, John Francisco, Little Anthony, John Fort Orange. All received parcels of land in what is now Greenwich Village.
The New York and Virginia experiences were repeated, with minor variations, in other colonies, especially Pennsylvania, where the system of Black indentured servitude was so deeply entrenched that there were probably more Black indentured servants than Black slaves at the time of the American Revolution.
According to the best estimates, there were some 375,000 Whites and 58,000 Blacks in the colonies in 1715. At that time there were 2,000 Blacks and 96,000 Whites in Massachusetts, 4,000 Blacks and 27,000 Whites in New York, 2,500 Blacks and 45,800 Whites in Pennsylvania, 9,500 Blacks and 40,700 Whites in Maryland, 23,000 Blacks and 72,000 Whites in Virginia, and 10,500 Blacks and 62,250 Whites in South Carolina.
Who were these Black immigrants? Where did they come from? What did they want?
The answer to the first question is simple. They were Africans--of course. This is one of those facts so big that it is easily overlooked, or assumed without question; and yet it is the key to an understanding of the first generation of Blacks. They were Africans. They were former citizens of states and principalities on the West Coast of Africa, displaced persons forcibly transported to a strange and hostile land in history's greatest crime, the African Slave Trade which murdered or maimed between 40 and 100 million men, women and children. Not only were the survivors Africans, but they were carriers of an African worldview. To be specific, they had ideas about social organization and the nature of the forces that controlled the world. They also had technical skills, particularly in the area of agriculture, which was well developed in Africa. "It ought not to be forgotten," W.E.B. DuBois says with his usual acumen, "that each Negro slave brought to America during four centuries of the African slave trade was taken from definite and long-formed habits of social, political, and religious life."
Most apparently were average citizens, but some were warriors, priests, noblemen, and even kings and queens. There are repeated references in the Virginia record to persons of high rank. A contemporary witness, Hugh Jones, tells us that Africans "that have been kings and great men [in their countries] are generally lazy, haughty, and obstinate." A remarkable case in point was reported by John Josselyn, an English traveler who was visiting Samuel Maverick of Massachusetts in 1639:
The second of October, (1639) about 9 of the clock in the morning, Mr. Maverick's Negro woman came to my chamber window, and in her own Countrey language and tune sang her very loud and shrill, going out to her, she used a great deal of respect towards me, and willingly would have expressed her grief in English; but I apprehended it by her countenance and deportment, whereupon I repaired to my host, to learn of him the cause, and intreat him in her behalf, for that I understood before, that she had been a Queen in her own Countrey, and observed a very humble and dutiful garb used towards her by another Negro who was her maid. Mr. Maverick was desirous to have a breed of Negroes, and therefore seeing she would not yield by persuasions to company with a Negro young man he had in his house, he commanded him, wil'd she nill'd she, to go to bed with her, which was no sooner done, but she kicked him out again, this she took in high disdain beyond her slavery and this was the cause of her grief.
Of whatever name, of whatever rank, the carriers of this tradition resisted the illegitimate authority of Englishmen. It was difficult, we are told, to break in new immigrants. Edward Kimber, an English traveler, said some Africans refused to yield to the requirements of the new system. "To be sure," he said, "a new Negro, if he must be broke, either from Obstinacy, or, which I am more apt to suppose, from Greatness of Soul, will require more hard Discipline than a young Spaniel...."
Besides obstinacy, Africans pressed their case with arson, suicide, and homicide, and flight. Some of these runaways settled in Indian villages and entered into a close and continuing entente with the first Americans. Several historians have remarked with interest that not a single Black perished in the great Indian attack on Virginia in 1622. There is other evidence to indicate that the Indians generally killed all Whites and spared all Blacks.
For most of the 17th century, most Africans apparently hoped for a miracle that would enable them to return to Africa. As the years passed, with no sign of a miracle, many abandoned hope and decided to make the best of a bad situation. Whatever the rationale, most Africans made the transition with a facility that gives point to Kenneth Stampp's observation that the first generation was as prepared for freedom as the tenth generation.
The transition was made with equal aplomb in the world of work. Most of the first generation of Blacks were skilled farmers who made several innovations that were later credited to their White masters. An early example of this was reported in Virginia, where the governor ordered rice planted in 1648 on the advice of "our Negroes," who said that conditions in Virginia were as favorable to the production of the crop as "in their Country." This happened in so many cases that the skill of the first Blacks became a part of the folklore, a fact noted by Washington Irving in the following satirical sketch: "These Negroes, like the monks of the Dark Ages, engross all the knowledge of the place, and being infinitely more adventurous and more knowing than their masters, carry on all the foreign trade.... They are great astrologers predicting the different changes of weather almost as accurately as an almanac...."
Not all of the first generation of Blacks were field hands. Some were artisans, some were barbers and sailors, and some were professional men. One instance of a Black professional man was reported in Connecticut, where one Primus struck out on his own after the death of his doctor master, becoming "extraordinarily successful throughout the country."
This situation began to change in the middle of the 17th century as more and more planters fell into the habit of increasing the burdens and the terms of all indentured servants. As the years wore on, socio-economic forces--the limited supply of poor Whites, the political situation vis-a-vis the Indians, and the unprotected status of African-Americans--tilted the scales of fate in the direction of the Black slavery. The end result was a fateful national decision, a terrible and unchangeable moment of truth that would live on, deep in the psyche of the nation, giving the American story a new dimension and an aura of tragedy.
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|Title Annotation:||reprinted from 'The Shaping of Black America'; the first blacks in America|
|Author:||Bennett, Lerone, Jr.|
|Date:||Feb 1, 1995|
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