Peter Wood on the difference between being a slave and a servant
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Q: What would be the difference between an enslaved person during that time -- or a person deemed a slave -- and a person who was a servant?
A: There's been a great debate among amongst 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 1660 in Virginia. It was once assumed that blacks were slaves for life, and whites were servants for 3, 4, 5, 7 years, depending on the contract. That was that. But the more people delved into the records, they found that, in fact, these statuses were not at all clear. Some blacks were slaves for life. Some seem to have been servants. Some seem to have achieved a freedom of some sort, of very various degrees of dependency on former masters and patrons and whatnot. Servants were in these contracts. They seem to have been treated dreadfully, and in some ways maybe even worse than some of the blacks, because as their contracts ran out, [they were] almost -- I don't want to be vulgar -- but treated like cars that you might rent, and you know that you you're going to run out on the contract. In any case, the experience of these whites was terrible.
My point is that in the early years of Virginia, these kinds of statuses were unclear, even to the people that were alive then. There was a range of possibilities. And you would certainly not assume that just simply because a man or woman was an African American, that he or she was a slave.
Now, if we turned forward a century into the 18th century you find a hardening of these kinds of categories. The racial assumptions are there. A man's skin determines his status. But that was not true in the early years.
Professor of History
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