The Chesapeake area in the seventeenth century was a unique community that was almost absent of racism. In this community, at this time, property was the central and primary definition of one’s place in society. The color of one’s skin was not a fundamental factor in being a well respected and valued member of the community. Virginia’s Eastern Shore represented a very small fellowship of people that were not typical of the Southern ideals during this time period and gave free blacks owning property a great deal of respect and merit usually equal to that of any white man around.
Racism, as a generalization, was a common and mostly unified way of thinking in the Southern states for a very long time and was in its prime during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The first importation of slaves into Virginia was in late August of 1619 and was only briefly recorded by one colonist, John Rolfe. He recorded them as “20. and odd Negroes” and from this the black population slowly grew to about three hundred by the mid-century. One must understand that the attitudes towards the blacks that came to Virginia were not inevitable. This is a very important point to note when understanding how the free blacks came to be they way they were in Northampton, Virginia.
It is not specifically known how Anthony Johnson came to own his “modest estate” or how he ended up in Northampton. Historians believe that his former master, Rirchard Bennett, may have been involved with Johnson’s move to Northampton because of his connections with the Scarborough family, a very dominant family in Northampton at the time. Also, as governor, Bennett may have helped to look after the Johnson’s “legal and economic interests” as well. By acquiring his estate, it enabled Johnson to have a constant source of income and therefore help the local community with it’s economy similarly. This relationship between he and the community came to help him when later his estate nearly burned down entirely. The court of Northampton treated him very well in helping them get through the disaster. He was treated just as any white man in Johnson’s position would have been. This example alone shows how merely owning property and giving back to the local community was a priority in establishing respect among people of the Northampton area; his skin color did not matter.
Another free black, Philip Mongum, was given usually respectable treatment for a crime of adultery with a white woman, Margery Tyer. Mongum was lucky enough to have been sold his freedom and managed to become a “relatively prosperous farmer.” He also leased a 300-acre plantation with two white men in 1678 and later in 1680 acquired more land, 200-acres, on his own. Needless to say this give him a very high level of respect and standing among the local people. When the issue of the affair was discovered Northampton appeared more concerned with the “Sin of Adultry” than having any concern that he was black. Mongum received a large fine and was told to keep out of the company of Tyer. Interestingly Tyer was not treated so well, she was given four lashes and warned that additional lashes would be given if she was found in Mongum’s company again. Though this was not a very severe punishment, it was certainly much more than Mongum had received. Again, the county of Northampton was not concerned with the race of the individuals, but with the crime itself.
Though there were very oppressive situations among the Southern states for enslaved blacks and indentured servants during Anthony Johnson’s time, Northampton presented a highly unusual set of circumstances for the seventeenth century. During this time blacks were being shipped from Africa under the most horrific and unimaginable conditions and treated truly as three-fifths of a person, if that, being left to die because people thought it was more economically sound to do so, easily replacing the deceased. Blacks such as Johnson and Mongum were more than lucky to be living in the county of Northampton where there are numerous stories of how in times of criminal activity or even unfortunate circumstances that these free blacks were treated equally and often better than some whites because of their ownership and contribution to the Northampton community.
One last point that this all demonstrates is that the outcome of much of the black community in America was not predestined and could have been avoided. The people of Northampton have shown that the ideas by which people treated blacks, and unfortunately sometimes still do, did not have to turn out the way it did. The color of one’s skin had and has not thing to do with a person’s capability and should not define how one is to be treated. Though much of Johnson’s experiences were often due to luck, he also proved that one does not have to always succumb to a society’s apprehensions towards certain issues and can create his own success by any means necessary.