Role Plays: Black Indentured Servant; ”Free Negro;” Slaveholder

NOTE: This teaching exercise allows the teacher to employ role playing as a way to engage students in the learning process. Suggestions are included in the sections on “Casting Instructions.” Teachers may designate monologues, two or more student participants, or student to class exchanges.  Teachers are also free to depart from these suggestions and use the historical material as they wish to create their own learning strategies.


NAME:  Anthony Johnson

TITLE: Black Indentured Servant; "Free Negro;" Slaveholder


Anthony Johnson was sold as an indentured servant to a merchant of the Virginia Company at Jamestown and arrived in 1621 aboard the James, listed as “Antonio, a Negro.” Originally captured and sold to Arab slave traders, he appears to have come from the Malange highlands of Angola. He was sold as an indentured servant to a white tobacco planter named Edward Bennett. Edward sent his son Richard to oversee the plantation. On Good Friday, March 22, 1622, the Tidewater Indians staged an uprising that killed about 350 colonists on James River plantations, including 52 on the Bennett estate. Antonio was one of four men who managed to survive the attack. Later that year, “Mary, a Negro,” arrived on the Margarett and John  from England and came to the same plantation as Antonio. They married and lived together for over forty years. Antonio and his wife Mary and their four children followed the Bennetts across the Chesapeake Bay to Virginia’s Eastern Shore where Bennett had established himself and where Johnson began to farm on his own. Sometime after 1635, Antonio and his family secured their freedom from indenture, purchased a plot of land, and Antonio changed his name to Anthony Johnson. In addition to raising tobacco, he began to breed cattle and hogs and build up his herds during the 1640s. The Virginia courts now recognized him as a “free Negro.” In 1651, he earned a 250 acre headright by buying the contracts of five indentured servants (one being his son Richard). The land was located on the Pungoteague River in Northampton County, Virginia.  Within a period of 30 years after arriving as an indentured servant, Johnson had acquired a substantial estate. His son John did even better, receiving a patent for 450 acres, and Richard, acquired a 100 acre estate. Collectively, he and his sons owned close to 1,000 acres and held twenty white and black, male and female servants. Johnson organized a community with twelve other Angolan families along the Pungoteague River. It was during the 1650s that Edmund Scarborough, another Eastern Shore planter traveled to the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (New York) to buy 41 Africans; some of these may have lived in Johnson’s community. In 1653 Johnson’s plantation burned to the ground and he petitioned the county court for relief, receiving a special abatement of his taxes for himself, his wife Mary and two daughers.  It was highly unusual to exempt black women from taxation. a privilege given only to white women. Indeed, it was commonly held that only “wenches that are nasty, and beastly” would actually cultivate tobacco.   Two law suits threatened to add to the bad luck of the fire. In 1653 John Casor, a black indentured servant claimed, on the urgings of a white planter, that he had served out his contract with Johnson. On appeal the court disagreed with Casor and awarded him to Johnson for life. In a second case, Edmund Scarborough, his white neighbor claimed that Johnson owned him money and sued him for payment of the debt. Johnson did not fight the case, perhaps because his daughter Elizabeth had married Scarborough’s eldest son, and the court awarded Scarborough 100 acres of his land. Johnson and his sons farmed independently, held slaves and indentured servants, and left sizeable estates. In the 1660s, the Johnson clan, searching for more productive land, moved to Somerset County, Maryland. There Anthony leased a 300-acre estate. Anthony Johnson died in 1670. His wife Mary and his sons took over for the patriarch; in 1672 Mary’s will distributed the estate among remaining members of the close knit family.


Little intimate knowledge is known about Johnson’s personality but much can be surmised from his activities as seen in public records. Based upon his remarkable rise from slave status to successful planter, he must have been a savvy, hardworking, and ingenious individual. Court judgments also reflect how he commanded much respect and regard for his service to the Virginia colonization project and the local community. One historian claimed his success established him as “the black patriarch of Pungoteague Creek.” He obviously valued a strong and secure family and had a ethnocultural identity with a community of black residents.


You have been captured in Angola by an African tribe, marched to the coast, and sold to Arab slave traders. You arrive in Virginia aboard an English ship. Slavery as an institution has yet to be established in V

irginia, but already 20 Africans, stolen from a Portuguese ship by an English privateer, have been brought to the colony. Some of these have been sold as slaves, others as indentures with term contracts.  It is very early in the colony’s existence and much uncertainty exists over servitude and the terms for labor service. Two, three, four, seven, even lifetime contracts may be found. Indians and Africans and even whites exist with lifetime contracts. The difference between slavery and freedom is unclear. In 1624-1625, a census found twenty-two Africans in the colony; in 1650, the colony still had only 300 Africans. Just because you are a person of color does not mean you will automatically be a slave. Luckily, your contract is for indentured servitude to Edward Bennett, whose son Richard is the overseer of the Bennett Plantation named Warresquioake on the south side of the James River. The class will know from above the details of your life. What you need to do is the following:


T.H. Breen and Stephen Innes, “Myne Owne Ground”: Race and Freedom on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, 1640-1576 (1980)

Google “Anthony Johnson colonist”

Indentured servant contracts, Virtual Jamestown

“The Experiences of an Indentured Servant: Richard Frethorne,” Virtual Jamestown

©This module created by Crandall Shifflett, Virginia Tech

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