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Anthony Johnson

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Anthony Johnson

In some ways he was a lucky man. To be sure, finding yourself in bondage on a Virginia tobacco plantation was not the result of good luck, but Anthony Johnson would rise above his low status and undoubtedly become the envy of many colonists.

Anthony Johnson first arrived in Virginia in 1621. Referred to as "Antonio a Negro" in early records, Anthony went to work on a tobacco plantation. It's not clear whether he was an indentured servant (a servant contracted to work for a set amount of time) or a slave.

Anthony nearly lost his life in the spring of 1622. Virginia's Powhatan Indians, threatened by the encroachments of tobacco planters, staged a carefully-planned attack that took place on Good Friday. By the middle of the day, over three hundred and fifty colonists were dead. On the plantation where Anthony worked, fifty-two were killed. Only Anthony and four other men survived.

Anthony's luck continued. Several years later, "Mary a Negro" was brought in to work on the plantation -- she was the only woman on the plantation. At the time, Virginia was populated almost exclusively by men. Still, Anthony and Mary became husband and wife, and they had four children.

Anthony and Mary eventually bought their way out of bondage. They acquired their own land. During the 1640s Anthony and Mary lived at their own place, raising livestock. By the 1650s, their estate had grown to 250 acres. For any ex-servant -- black or white -- to own his own land was uncommon, despite the promise made by the Virginia Company to give a tract of land to each servant at the end of service. For an ex-servant to own 250 acres was rarer still.

In 1665 Anthony and his family sold their 250 acres and moved to Maryland, where they leased a 300-arce tract of land. Anthony died five years later, in the spring of 1670; Mary renegotiated the lease for another 99 years. That same year, a court back in Virginia ruled that, because "he was a Negro and by consequence an alien," the land owned by Johnson (in Virginia) rightfully belonged to the Crown.

Anthony Johnson lived a long life when, in America, disease and violent death by cruel overseers and Indian attacks resulted in low life expectancies. Court records reveal that he had the respect of his community -- a respect that would be denied African Americans in the years to come.

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Related Entries:
Portrait of a Negro
Portrait of the Moorish Woman Katharina
Court document regarding Anthony Johnson
Thomas Davis on Anthony Johnson

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