John Casor , a servant in Northampton County in the Virginia Colony, in 1654 became the first person of African descent in the Thirteen Colonies to be declared by the county court 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. The court sustained the right of free blacks to own slaves, and ordered Casor returned to his master for life.
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 came to Jamestown in 1619 as indentured servants. After working out their contracts for passage money to Virginia, each was granted 50 acres (20 ha) of land when they completed their indentures, so they could 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.
Anthony Johnson was a Black 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, where he acquired property on Pungoteague Creek and began raising livestock. He was the first African landowner in the colony. By July 1651, he had brought 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”.
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, and “Anthony Johnson was in a feare. Upon this his sonne in lawe, his wife and his two sonnes perswaded the said Anthony Johnson to sett 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.
Sustaining the claim of Anthony Johnson to the perpetual service of John Casor, the court gave judicial sanction to the right of Negroes to own slaves of their own race. The defendant, John Casor, thus became the first individual known to be declared a slave in what later became the United States. 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. In the courts’ circular reasoning, “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 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. 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. New free black families continued to be formed by the marriages and liaisons between white women, whether servant or free, and African men, whether servant, free or slave, because their children were born to free white women. Working class servants and laborers still lived closely together during this period