THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1994, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Sunday, August 21, 1994 TAG: 9408190821 SECTION: COMMENTARY PAGE: J6 EDITION: FINAL SOURCE: GEORGE TUCKER LENGTH: Medium: 75 lines
Anthony Johnson was Virginia's earliest known African-American agricultural entrepreneur and is believed to have been the first black slaveowner in the Old Dominion.
Johnson's story is a textbook example of what ambitious former bondsmen could accomplish before stringent late-17th century legislation by the Virginia House of Burgesses precluded further advancement for enterprising African-Americans.
The Virginia phase of Johnson's story began in 1621, when, under the listing ``Antonio a Negro,'' he arrived in the James River aboard the ship James. It is not known if he was brought to Virginia directly from Africa or was picked up elsewhere by slave traders. One of his grandsons named his farm ``Angola,'' which suggests that either Johnson or his forebears were from the southwestern coast of Africa.
In any event, Johnson was immediately sold to the overseer of Bennett's Welcome, a tobacco plantation on the south side of the James River. A year later - on Good Friday, March 22, 1622 - hostile Indians massacred more than 350 colonists. Fifty-three of these fell at Bennett's Welcome, but Johnson escaped. Later in 1622, another ship, the Margaret and John, arrived in Virginia. On board, among others, was ``Mary a Negro Woman,'' who later became Johnson's wife and bore him two sons and two daughters.
Even though there is no record to prove it, it is supposed that someone with the surname of Johnson helped ``Antonio a Negro'' gain his freedom, and that the former slave then took the name of his benefactor. From then on Johnson appears in early Virginia records as Anthony Johnson.
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. By July 1651, he had brought his holdings, which he referred to in a court record as ``myne owne ground,'' to 250 acres, then a considerable tract by eastern shore standards. Meanwhile, he had acquired at least one black slave as well as several white indentured servants.
In 1653, Johnson's fortunes took a downward turn. In February of that year ``an unfortunate fire'' wiped out his home and farm buildings. In desperation, he applied to the county court for relief. This was readily granted because of his ``hard labor and known service.'' Two years later, when he and his family had again attained a modicum of prosperity, he successfully sued a prominent planter who he accused of illegally confiscating some of his livestock.
Then in 1654, an incident took place that proved that Johnson, a black man, not only owned another member of his race, but was able to keep him in bondage for the rest of his life.
The man in question was ``a Negro called John Casor,'' who convinced a white neighbor that he was an indentured servant who should have been freed at the expiration of his tenure. Believing Casor, the man took him home to work in his own tobacco fields. This caused a good deal of wrangling, the outcome being that Johnson's wife and family persuaded him to grant Casor his freedom. As a result, Johnson agreed to discharge ``John Casor from all service.''
Apparently Johnson did this unwillingly. In March 1655, he went to court complaining that the neighbor was detaining Casor under the pretense that he was a free man. In the end, the justices decided that Casor ``shall forthwith be returned unto the service of his master Anthony Johnson.''
Interestingly, Casor not only again became a member of the Johnson enclave, but remained Johnson's slave and confidant for the rest of his life.
By the 1660s, the lot of free blacks like Johnson was becoming difficult in the increasingly white-oriented Virginia of that time. This caused Johnson to sell his holdings on Pungoteague Creek and move with his entire family to Somerset County, Maryland, where he named his new farm ``Tonies (i.e., Anthony's) Vineyard.'' He died shortly afterward, leaving his wife, two sons, John and Richard, two daughters, and their families. Mary Johnson survived until 1672.
From then until 1706 - the date of the last reference to the Johnsons in the Maryland archives - the clan lived on adjoining farms, one of which was named ``Angola.'' After that, the family that had been established in the 1630s by ``Antonio a Negro'' and ``Mary a Negro Woman'' faded into obscurity. by CNB