Race based slavery in North America had its origins in seventeenth-century Virginia. Initially, the position of the African worker was similar to that of the indentured servants from England. During the early to mid-seventeenth century, both African and English indentured servants served for a period of years and received the protections to which a servant was entitled. However, during the 1640s there appeared examples of Africans also being held as slaves. Thus, during the seventeenth century there existed a dual system of servitude or bondage for the African worker. One basis for this duality was the common law practice that mandated that Christians could not hold fellow Christians as slaves.
This dual system existed until the 1660s when the Virginia General Assembly, the legislative and highest judicial body in the colony, began to enact legislation that made it more difficult for Africans to assert claims that they were servants and not slaves. While the legal status of the black worker declined, that of white servants was elevated. White servants were granted protections under the laws as African servants and enslaved persons were denied those same accommodations. By 1705, the institution that became a codified system of slavery had been fully adopted in Virginia, and Africans had been reduced to property.
This article will explore the historical and legal status of the Africans in the Virginia Colony from 1619-1705. Part II will examine the status of African workers during the early years from 1619-1640. Part III will examine the transitional years from 1640-1660. Part IV explores the movement towards a fully formed slave institution. Part V discusses the final stage of the enslavement of Africans: the elimination of the servant status found in the early periods.
Randolph M. McLaughlin, The Birth of a Nation: A Study of Slavery in Seventeenth-Century Virginia, 16 Hastings Race & Poverty L.J. 1 (2019), https://digitalcommons.pace.edu/lawfaculty/1114/.