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Anthony Johnson

“Antonio a Negro” was brought to America on the James in 1621 and sold to an Englishman in the colonial settlement of Jamestown. For nearly 12 years he worked on a plantation for the Bennetts, a wealthy white family.

The Bennetts owned Antonio but allowed him to farm a small plot of land for himself, in addition to the work he did on the Bennett plantation. There he most likely grew tobacco and corn. He was also able to own several head of cattle while still a slave. In the early years in Virginia and Maryland, slaves were more similar to servants — not necessarily slaves for life — and Africans were often granted more privileges than during later years of slavery.

Antonio married a black woman named Mary and had four children. Antonio was praised for his hard work and good service, and he eventually became free. One of the first things he did was change his name to Anthony Johnson. Most slaves did not have last names, or else they used the name of their master. By creating a new name for himself, Anthony Johnson was announcing that he was no longer a slave.

He continued to work hard and became a landowner, acquiring a patent for 250 acres of land, a fairly sizeable plot. Two of his sons, John and Richard, were also able to acquire land once they became adults. Anthony Johnson even made enough money to buy an African slave of his own. When a white neighbor tried to take away Johnson’s slave, Johnson went to court to protect his property. The court ruled in his favor and against a wealthy white man. Thus, in early Maryland, slaveholding was not limited to whites, and some Africans could become fairly well off or even respected in the community.

Life was not all good for the Johnsons though. In 1653 "an unfortunate fire" caused "great losses" for the Johnson family. He appealed to the court for help and was relieved of paying some taxes. The Johnsons also faced some discrimination because of their skin color and several attempts by neighboring whites to take their land. Perhaps because of increasing harassment, the Johnsons moved to Somerset County, Maryland around 1665.

The Johnsons brought 14 head of cattle and 8 sheep with them when they moved to a less settled area on Wicomico Creek. In 1666 Anthony Johnson signed a lease renting a 300 acre plot of land called "Tonies Vinyard" from a white man named Stephen Horsey.

When Anthony Johnson died in 1670, the lease passed to his wife Mary and then to their sons. The Johnsons's ability to acquire wealth and land were somewhat unusual in seventeenth-century Maryland, but they show that not all Africans were slaves and that in this early society, whites and blacks were more integrated in the community than in later years.

  • Berlin, Ira, Many Thousands Gone: The First two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Cambridge, Mass. & London: Harvard University Press, 1998.

  • Breen, T.H. and Stephen Innes, "Myne Owne Ground": Race and Freedom on Virginia's Eastern Shore, 1640-1676. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

  • Deal, J. Douglas, Race and Class in Colonial Virginia: Indians, Englishmen, and Africans on the Eastern Shore During the Seventeenth Century. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1993.

  • Matthews, Harry Bradshaw, The Family Legacy of Anthony Johnson: From Jamestown, VA to Somerset, MD, 1619-1995. Oneonta, NY: Sondhi Loimthongkul Center for Interdependenc, Hartwick College, 1995.
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