Peter Wood on the Africans' experience
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Q: What was the experience of the African in this time, especially in the Virginia colony?
A: You have to remember that Africans living in English America in the seventeenth century -- the first or second generation after Jamestown is founded -- are living in a relatively English context. There are very few other Africans. Most of them came, not directly from Africa but through the West Indies, where they may have lived for a while, may have learned to speak English. They find themselves living on the Chesapeake amid other Englishmen, sometimes being discriminated against, sometimes being exploited, but often being given opportunities and making possibilities for themselves.
We have records of specific families. There's a man named Johnson on the eastern shore, who builds an elaborate farm for himself. When he does, his wife takes over. When she dies, she wills a cow over to each of the children and they divide up the land -- not very different from their English neighbors. But within a generation this family has disappeared from the record books. We know that they named one of their farms Angola, which makes us think they probably had some recollections of their own African roots. But by 1700 we're unclear what had become of them. So we have to suspect that they, like many others, had become victims of this terrible transformation; that the legal system which was allowing them to own a farm, give a cow to their daughter, do the normal things that were being done in this farming community, those rules had changed, and they had been sucked into this morass of race slavery. And their descendants would remain in that system.
Professor of History
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