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     Interview with Timothy Breen, William Smith Mason Professor of American
    History, Northwestern University
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this is great that i remember i remember very well how i got interested and anthony johnson and the other free bikes was completely by accident the most of them good work i've done has been a surrogate that yes i was working in the virginia state library system richmond it's a fine fine building from a jeffersonian period and i'm an act of boredom i started going through some of the manuscript records o from northampton some of the county's too but it was really just something to pass the time and i noted there to my surprise at some lists have you do with that tax is tied the most of this ambition had racial designations solar
individual i know no these people painter longo would save me grow up after another names wouldn't but then i would turn several pages and i would find these people are other less for the same purpose was actually no designation just a series of names so i did it and i'm a mind experiment what if only one enlisted survive what would we know about the past phyllis what the racial designations have been the only tax less that survived some chickens who think that there was a heightened hypersensitivity about race is the major factor in defining human experience if the other listed been the only one that we survived we would think that there hadn't been many black set on the eastern shore and was largely i'm an anglo creole american society whether that both the server
and it had been inviting interpretation anthony johnson was simply the most was visible the most documented individual within this community as i discovered only in terms of property but because of legal legal situations that he and his family found themselves in this week the case cbs big surprise be beating people ask me well in one way johnson was was difficult it's not so much that i imagine this man that lived
several centuries ago been difficult like to imagine what it would've been like and i think he would have been an aggressive ambitious self confident powerful factor that many many people would've liked some people would've preps feared him a bit because he had it clearly a very strong will i calling the patriarch hunger to create a part of a rich region but in so much as i found him different it was because he presents interpreter the problems of the midst of the cup has an individual that arrives as one of the first african americans in the history of what became the united states he does what almost no one in early virginia managed to do and that is live everyone's dying of disease filings and you sense he's lucky us knows how to behave abnormally does he live he finds a woman that he loves and marries
mary johnson and it creates a life as a freak a freak plant now that in itself as it is interesting and curious but we also know from one famous moment in his life that he purchased an african american slave who wield we only know as as caesar is now the sermon and this has presented a target of problems from from other people in the end were for historians for a long time but first to a black swan interesting word we're part of history at all and it was a story of the first families of virginia then he became a curiosity people's noted is an interesting set free planter of that of these property mentions good but it was of no interpreter that interest that exist today as i say he goes from oblivion that curiosity
and then it became clear that he participated fully in the form of capitalism that created a lot of suffering a name of slavery so we have a person of angolan background coming to the new world to becoming fully accommodate it to a system of exploitive agricultural capitalism and and buying a home and a black man would and so this is very seldom been on some ways difficult to place a mini narratives that we recognize in american history and in my own writing in the writings with stephen anderson university of virginia tried to make sense out of johnson's life in it in new ways that didn't resolve their difficulties so much as to show why they they existed
and that was my life early virginia i think for modern americans who journey into place like williamsburg or have a sense of really virginia through their eyes of disneyland's recent movie pocahontas which i romanticize is sanitize is history to a degree that it seems like a frolic in the woods in point of fact early virginia was was horrible for blacks and whites and indians thousands of english men and women most of them for the corps very marginal quite formal came along came to virginia and promptly died mostly of diseases but also all of the malfeasance company not supplying them with food cheating them abusing them it was
casual violence it was a world where men outnumber women by fox five to one are five to two so the normal family formation social life than just was on an unimaginable were the indians were often bent on reclaiming they're there and their land that they need jocelyn thought was theirs and so the military violets indian some the plantations plantation researcher anthony johnson i'm not was attacked and many of the people he worked with and lived with where or kill them is also a fine olson not nothing to be said about living in virginia before sixteen quarter sixteen fifty six up survival just a mental toughness of physical toughness to try to make it
from day to day and for those rare people that form families and head shoulder and saw their children to adulthood such a rarity is almost worthy of our art our praise in a way that you would never occur to someone who stayed in new england history with a look at what life spans were long and health was a snowstorm than the people of knowing were busy setting up universities and printing presses and that's where the comparison for virginia is rather calm today a kind of gold rush community where where people desperate people hoping that they can make a little money some way fast enough and live crabs get back to england for destiny catches so this is the world that do that the anthony johnston's and some of the other three blocks of the eastern shore would have no constant constant
insecurities and need to make alliances and negotiate around of existence that that was very very very fluid and add to all of these problems the political situation was extremely insecure the king in the mainland and seven and sixteen twenty four twenty five town the company so corrupt and he a tennis courts ruled that virginia become a royal colony under and more under the king's direct control and there were several rebellions sixteen thirties one when governor was run out of a colleague mr harvey the sixteen seventies was a full scale civil war i called they can survive in all of this the political violence that immediate threat to life was it was just part of everybody's and daily expectations
and anthony johnston's experience of coming to virginia it's very hard to document the records were quite sparse slavery and new world slavery the enslavement of africans for the imperial mission and by portuguese spanish dutch and was had already had a history they'd been no slaves however there are documented in this colony of virginia were forty or sixty nineteen and some of those slaves seem to have been trays your booty taken by english hearts english and people looking for prizes in the spanish main and they captured whatever they could in the cart was human so so be and first late seems to have been taken off a spanish it's what we also know is a good number of the first blacks in them virginia seem to have some some
background in and color what is modern modern day and go out some of johnson's friends school they have names that can be related to that particular african i believe anthony came out of that world we don't know any case he was clearly present in the colony of virginia in the jamestown region in the early sixteenth twenty years and as of as a slight as a non free person there were very very few blacks in virginia the decade ago the sixteenth one is that a teeny teeny number historians have wondered why slavery didn't just take off and given that the tobacco was a major major crop and what you needed was large mouth numbers unskilled laborers and then i and the reason that historians now know is that frankly that dumb
the slave urged sold sold their car goes off to markets that were more accessible and end and richard corbett the sugar and sugar water and so it was it was difficult to get africans the reason i say this is that there was nothing there was no reason to believe that the white regents were squeamish about slavery where that they didn't understand slavery or the benefits of the camp it was a matter of supply and anthony found himself in this world in which i might say that the white indentured servants we're treated extraordinarily poorly indeed some historians said that slavery wasn't defined into virginia law and consistent cohen until the sixteenth sixties humans seventy or five because most people most most servants slaves died was in such a short period that you didn't really need to have the category of slave for life
servants everyone was it was a goner they weight bum as i said earlier we've talked about the ed johnson survived the diseases and the native american attacks and one where other we do not know how that took the surname johnson approached it was someone that looked out for him but he and connected himself with a reasonably powerful family money on the eastern shore moves across the bay and begins to show up in the records of that area as a as an independent person in the sixteen forties and fifties he lived and lived a long life i don't know how he received his freedom the normal way that people received a freedom that they were the black slave was either men emission the goodwill of the masters and that was a pretty weak read to count here but the other was self purchase forms of
allowing slaves to have moments preps we can serve but on sunday to tend to their own gardens or on crops and we have innocent and i have found cases of both people wanting their freedom so badly that they think that the with what they'd but they do their savings or ability to to make crops in the small hours assistant amazing one man was told that he could have his freedom if he gave his master the equivalent of three white indentured servants gone into the search market and get me threesome at that he managed to achieve them so i saw in the johnson must've gone through some process where he was challenged by someone to purchase himself and purchase is why merritt in any case and a small area of north
hampton virginia known as pandit to greet which is on the western side of the eastern shore where the home storms it's not us on the bayside nabila that you can fish and in the harbors and gets a safe safe harbor and a lot of our antennae johnson's world would have been in both small boats going up and down the shore of contact with other other people waiting like planters lady slippers because of that there's been a great to a debate among most historians for a very long time about the relative status of black men and women and poor white men and women in the period before sixteen sixty in
virginia as once assumed that blacks were slaves for life and whites were servants for three four five seven years depending on the contract and that was that was that but the more people delved into the records they found that indeed in fact the status is we're not at all clear some blacks were slaves for some simple than servants some seem to have achieved the freedom of some sort of very various degrees of dependency and former patron former masters of patrons and were servants we're and in these contracts and they seem to have been treated and rightfully and in some ways maybe even worse than some of the blacks because as their contracts run out of pulse and only logar but treated like carson you might rent you know hitting you gonna
run out on the contract in any case the that the experience of these what weiss was half a point is that in the early early years of virginia these kinds of status is we're unclear even to the people that were live that was that there was a range of possibility and he would certainly not a soul but to simply because a man or woman was an african american that he or she was was a slight know if we turn forward a century into the eighteenth century ad you find a hardening of these kinds of characters the racial assumptions are there a man skin determines his status but that was not true in the early years you know this is weekend
edition there are many many ways that human beings can divide themselves upper class is one gender race ethnicity there's a number of ways that people buy themselves up and in early virginia race was was a category that people recognize what people recognize difference and sometimes i would even argue celebrated difference white people money in this highly competitive depressingly tom abusive world poor whites and poorer blacks people who are marginalized in the system of the pending labor oftentimes reached out to each other in ways that suggests that at least in the first fifty or sixty years of virginia
class class considerations lasik lesson in common common their survival decency that no you're going to have a meal that the chance to escape some of the harsher forms of punishment that cloak the people of one of them african background in english background were able to work together in ways that again in later periods of american history when possible to give you some examples that i found interesting in this early period in order to escape some of the drudgery of plantation life blacks ran away free skate what they oftentimes ran away with white servants and taking taking off aaa into the frontier where native
americans were unhappy with any any outsiders and culture that it was a dangerous proposition now but this this active of a freedom of protests resistance was clearly biracial doesn't mean that the whites were not conscious of racial distinction of the blacks didn't recognize it's in my point is that the the power of trying to find a decent life and economically basically class interests were that were cut were term options conditions understand virginia social order other problems are surviving david by day you have to understand that the society or to organize itself extraordinarily hierarchical it
this society that anthony johnson lived back then in the early and mid seventeenth century was it ranged extremely hierarchical it as english communities counties in european societies and at the top of these county communities so usually was one or two or three very wealthy gentry families people who's property and their ownership of a labor afforded them special privileges and in johnsen's world demand that would have been that the chief person this one english historian of calls these people over mighty subjects was a man by name edmund scarborough scarbro had personal contacts with the king of england and he clearly came to america to advances his personal well
there were other lesser gentry would have sat on what was called a county court justices of the peace and controlled and dispense with justice such as it was under them would have been a number of free planters mostly whites been as in johnson's case some some blacks who owe we're more or less dependent in the legal and economic way on the great collectors but they were free and could come and go as they chose and under them were servants and then slaves down what made all of this society go was property claims of property if one had property one could make and go to go to lala mean you're your status your identity in the society was determined rather obviously by the amount of land and the labor that you will
and so that when johnson sued another white's small white planter or another wants more white planter sue johnson one of his black friends it was usually over property they understood the property was involved in that one to court because the court but legal system sustained the security and standing a property as the organizing element a minimum and slaughter us all these people that were as i said behold and on to the point of the gentry but in return the gentry secure their property and recognize that they could settle their disputes and the county calif court ruling that is supposed to clean
with virginia's politics and seventeenth century as was maryland says look at tobacco company was hit an extremely tempestuous several rebellions and one full scale civil war the question is what was a motivating factor you who was fighting whom for one recent scholarship he's showing them oftentimes very core a white servants for poor freed blacks poor from white planters who felt that their access to property was being blocked that they were being dealt with unfairly wood wood join hands and challenged authority were several rising sea in the sixteen sixties and in the great revival
bacon this rebellion the issues are complicated but couldn't deny that there were many many of bacon himself was a very wealthy planter newly ripe planter who challenge to other gentry for control the associate with governor mark lee was a lot and that usually is interested historians that the chief of chiefs the heads would employ a fact when you go down and find out who are the soldiers the foot soldiers are valiant find fascinating cases of a pretty impoverished people of both races fighting being under arms together carrying weapons together because they felt that their access to property what it was was being denied to compromise in ways that they may no longer could tolerate it is not uncommon for instance for a person to work himself out of servant whether white and seven long years of drug
trade only to discover that all the open land in virginia was separate native americans largely untouched that this land was a lot of not for sale that was controlled by the jet and so that the only way this individual could could make it was by leasing or renting land which seemed to those people and seems with hindsight almost an absurdity and so these class issues drove partly drove really political discontent what's interesting in comparison is that if you move up into the eighteenth century there were threats of rebellions of all sorts but there were always associated with fox slave rebellions find no evidence in the eighteenth century of war poor or poor poor whites poor whites making common political cause with blacks marginal pitch that the racial divide in the eighteenth century become so pronounced the
common political cause just never came up and yet in the seventeenth century the greatest fear of the ruling class was a poor people of all colors would join a call them the turn of that third of greek fiercer by the communist plot of the nineteen fifties was the rise in what they call big giddy multitude so these were poor people of all races that they felt were the sole authority in order to get a decent decent living a decent break in the new world and it is is that those class elements that last out eventually to a hardening of racial categories paul's status the living is
the rise of a formal racially defined legal cohen's in virginia teresa something that occurs towards the end of this of the seventies and into the early eighteenth century no one will ever precisely know what was the engine of racism and ugly and the guillotine way that there are many factors in the end of the seventeenth year in the eighteenth century there was a great infusion a new african workers larger numbers than there had ever been before in the last decade of the seventeenth century it was possible to imagine that in a single year the number of new africans arriving would equal the total black population in the county or close to it these are men and women that came directly from africa as opposed to other colonies the new world they did not have any english they didn't know no sense of the world they were
getting into and they they seemed to whites as as very alien foreign and noble and an animal language since they were a normal so these kinds of earlier run in some way of doing politics together of of even having sex the event that was understood and anthony johnston's world because it was a shared language basis that was locked sense of property that was there was divided in this later period by me the line language divide that attend to add exacerbate the racial divide moreover there was a as people lived longer than they did in the eighteenth century it became necessary to put into law all kinds of stipulations about inheritance of labor for life will be a lot of what it meant to be a sled and the
black population of virginia it one can't be precise but began to reproduce itself somewhere around the turn of the century when i see reproduce itself if no new africans had arrived in virginia say after the year seventeen hundred the population still would have sustained itself but that first light verse outnumbered that was not true for most of the seventeenth century you need you need a new arrivals so that the sensible people living longer made of course problems of inheritance and taxes all kinds of things became have put four so the legal codes and in seventeen all five if memory serves it was extremely rigid a racial call to be black meant that you were a slave to be white that meant that you were free and in the end rate race became the basis of law and
politics one wonders how one wonders how johnson would've viewed this changing world of virginia he lived a very long time certainly they are wild competitive brutal world of his views would have been very difficult to romanticize i think but on the other hand he survived and did quite well bystanders the day and building up properties hundreds hundreds of acres and cattle herders sanders's time i think you know anyone would say he did quite well but now the gentry status but a free plant and he had a number of children and those children also lived a relatively long lives
and they did well not better than johnson and probably a little diminished that is there's no reason to believe oh as of say the sixteen seven days at the johnson family's going to be squeezed out reps a few signs along the margins and looking back of white neighbors becoming a bit more aggressive of some signs of of hardening of racial lines but i think it's only with hindsight would johnson faced and what all planters of this eastern shore face was running out of the fertility of land because tobacco such a hard crop and so at some point johnson and almost all of his children except one move north into a maryland where they set up again and johnson had a plantation called tony's as interesting was anthony tone tony's plantation and the
fun of property there to agree situations so but the next generation after the sunset there's a slow slide downhill and one feels these racial lines we talk about the hardening of prejudice the discrimination is the unfairness of laws the inability to feel if you could sustain the security of property suddenly become but suddenly it's actually sold become problematic and so a historian by the name was deal who is partly traced out the johnson family for several generations finds that the last of the group seems to have blended in with native americans in the current state of delaware marginal native americans
marginal free blacks desperately holding on probably to property that's fairly and unproductive so long way from anthony johnston's hope that this year by that for sheer force of personality struggle that he could make his way in this society to the diminished horizons of his grandchildren his great chat grandchildren this is not in the long term a success story is a story of great promise that was not realized over time it's been great the great crisis in antony johnson's life and the life of his wife and children came nearly sixteen fifty ce is a case that went before the law that's what we know about it and it requires all the modern person's ability to reach across time to
try to comprehend the issues that were at stake the facts of the case seemed to be a fairly clear johnson as he prospered as a free black man purchased the pendant labor's one of them was a black man who we know only as caesar one day white planters visited the great crisis in the life of anthony johnson and his wife and his children are kurds in nearly sixteen fifty eight we know about in this crisis because it brought the johnsons to local courts the county court documents that were generated by the trial reveals a great
deal about the johnson family in their relationship to their neighbors and to the wealthy gentry of the cobb county it's very difficult to interpret he calls up all of our ability to empathize over time with another world the facts of the case are not in dispute although the summer the details may be less documented than we would like as johnson prospered because he obtained landed cattle he also acquired dependent laborers one of the laborers was a man we only know as caesar caesar was an african american mom and johnson claim that caesar was his slave slave for life for one day they like all days of spring day some white planters neighbors came over to visit johnson perhaps have a
drink relax talk make deals whatever when johnson was out of rome caesar literally threw himself upon these two white visitors and said johnson is keeping me as a slave and honestly i'm an indentured servant there's a contract to properly executed contract that says that i'm a connoisseur and i i should have my freedom just like johnson and others here in the us the two white planters in the name of justice but frankly probably a way of getting seize it for their own took that took the manna what is a direct confrontation to johnson's independence and authority in this community it also shows of course how a tender even in this time of racial racial relations where that someone could could just simply take a labor away from a free planter
the initial reaction johnson and his family was very interesting that he called together a family councilman included married as well as his children i know of no other family council in a crisis in virginia and it may be that this was a peculiarity of johnson's background but in any case he was advised by his children too let it go let it be it's too dangerous to challenge these words three season and he was momentarily persuaded that that is in fact what he should do and caesar was given statements talking to the fact that he was free but the more johnson thought about what he had endured and the assault on his property rights as he defined them and as other virginians to find he didn't simply could not accept this so going against his previous decision he went to a court of law that was made up entirely of wealthy white planters and told them that these two
visitors had stolen his labor and an end and therefore deprived johnson of his human property in the trial of caesar claimed again that there was this indentured but it was never produced and after hearing the case the judges found for jobs returned caesar to the johnson family a black family with a black slave for life and the two whites that had a stolen caesar paid court cost as far as i know caesar did spend his natural life associated with the johnson family as they're dependent labor one wonders what this could mean it's not necessarily a pretty story gets really isn't wood johnson one where another in this rough world learned enough about the language of
law power property to know how to handle himself and he put it to a white authorities are you going to allow your racial feelings to overrule your sense of how the law property works in the society and the judges i understood the language very well and they sided with johnson as a property holder as a slave owner as one of people in a capitalist our voucher system that had made his way that was more important than putting him down or humiliating him at that particular moment the man they got the short end of the stick of course was to use it because he too watered the language of freedom he too understood the difference between being an adventure and a sled and one at freedom very badly and he lost out in this world as many many many women lost out so johnson's life and his actions become hard for us to understand you see
a person who resisted an incursion upon his or his estate in a way that shows cleverness and cunning our mind or is he a person that that we feel uncomfortable with because he insisted on holding onto another human being as property i'll leave that up to other people decide people wonder johnson and his success mccourt and his success again his own freedom and property and what what racial consciousness cultural identity did he feel if he did he imagined that as an end goal and he was become in some ways for an angle a anglo columnist and in a meaningful way or at any of dropped his head it's a
very difficult question the evidence is is there are hints are or that he at key moments having to do with his family or in some trade with horst about horses and one i sought out of the free blacks oftentimes had some distance as if the conscious of the conscious creation of a network that was both apart and separate from the normal workings of capitalism this county were at stake but the most powerful piece of evidence is a single word johnson when he moved to maryland set up a plantation which he called tony's plantation but his son to create a plantation of his own he too was a free black plant and when the sun came to name the plantation of course englishman named their plantations that fervor link him or york
water the sun shows at that moment in the late seventeenth century as the second generation of free blacks in america to name the plantation and goal which seems to indicate that there were memories and that family went back to his base there's a haunting phrases survive from the seventeenth century that helps us understand the free black community it at its inception that is mine own ground my own ground this the phrase comes from
a wonderful court deposition or a free black man and his white partner beyond the field together and walking down a road and as they walk down the past local shark was sitting on a stump an observer to people black men and white men going to their failed after a bit they came back and the white men went on its way into like stop to talk to the sheriff's twenty one what are you guys doing a parent the blackmun said well we have it we were having a disagreement about the fields were with which which parts or are somewhat the crop in and so on so we divided that faded and this is the quotation a black man said to the sheriff now i know my own ground and i'll play one i want and all work when i please it gives a powerful sense of the of the of the meaning of property and identity and freedom in this society
a us to talk about this or you know in the way that is made it's a different one that is good good good question one might wonder why you bother a scholar would bother so much with anthony johnson with a handful of black men and women that became free planters so very long ago cemented century why not treat them the saudis why not just let them go is exceptions to a lawyer
true story of enslavement degradation the discrimination no historian that i know would deny how awful the story of slavery is that and as a blemish at the center of our car culture but the importance of selling johnson is to realize that an early moment when men and women were sorting themselves out when the rules the etiquette of race labor or not so clear at this moment it was not for ordained that in fact race relations with become what they did become and the men and women today who use as a crutch the inevitability of hostility or misunderstanding or lack of communication hughes inevitability as the crops are better start it might have turned out different and for a brief moment in one county in
Africans in America
Episode Number
The Terrible Transformation
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Interview with Timothy Breen, William Smith Mason Professor of American History, Northwestern University
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WGBH (Boston, Massachusetts)
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Timothy Breen is interviewed about Anthony Johnson and life in 17th century Virginia, life of a slave vs. life of a servant, how race becomes the basis of law and politics, Anthony Johnson as a land owner and a slave owner.
Race and Ethnicity
American history, African Americans, civil rights, slavery, abolition, Civil War
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Chicago: “Africans in America; 101; The Terrible Transformation; Interview with Timothy Breen, William Smith Mason Professor of American History, Northwestern University ,” 1998-00-00, WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed September 20, 2020,
MLA: “Africans in America; 101; The Terrible Transformation; Interview with Timothy Breen, William Smith Mason Professor of American History, Northwestern University .” 1998-00-00. WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. September 20, 2020. <>.
APA: Africans in America; 101; The Terrible Transformation; Interview with Timothy Breen, William Smith Mason Professor of American History, Northwestern University . Boston, MA: WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from