Note: Whites, Blacks and Natives means the forefathers of White, Black and Native Americans, even though they rarely called themselves that back then.
By the 1610s the plantation system in Virginia was in place – before Blacks arrived in numbers. Whites grew tobacco and other crops using forced gang labour.
- pay: little to nothing
- housing: separate, substandard
- food: poor.
- punishment: whippings, maiming
- term of service: generally four to seven years.
Most workers were White. They were convicts, vagabonds, homeless, “excess poor”, Irish. They were bought and sold. Most died before they gained their freedom. They were all but slaves.
In 1619, enter Black Africans. At first they were just part of the work force. Blacks and Whites worked side by side, married each other freely, ran away from their masters together (meaning they trusted each other that much) and even rose up against the rich together, guns drawn. Blacks had the same rights as Whites of the same social status (servant, free, etc). American society was mainly divided by class, not race.
From 1640 to 1723 the American colonies, particularly in the South, passed laws that ate away at the civil rights of Blacks: the right to vote, bear arms, marry Whites, hold property, get an education, testify in court, gather in public with more than three other Blacks, etc. And, oh, slavery became legally recognized.
At first the excuse was religion – most Blacks were “heathens” (non-Christians). By the late 1600s the excuse became race. In 1691 White Americans wrote the first law where they called themselves “Whites” rather than Christians.
This was the period when the Melungeons – free Black men with White wives – left eastern Virginia for the Appalachian mountains.
By the end of this period slavery had become racialized, hereditary and permanent. Most blacks were now slaves for life – and, by law, so were all their descendants to the end of time.
- Lowered labour costs.
- Divided and weakened the working class.
- Gave poor Whites a stake in the social order: “At least I’m not Black.”
- Gave race social meaning.
This became even more important after Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676 when armed Black and White labourers rose up and burned Jamestown to the ground.
But why were most slaves Black? Why not Irish or Native American?
It was not racism: racism against Irish and Natives in the 1600s was worse – they were seen as savages. White Americans did not see Blacks that way until the early 1700s – after Black slavery was in full swing.
Unlike Natives or the Irish, Blacks (mostly from West Africa):
- Were in greater supply by the late 1600s.
- Had greater knowledge of agriculture, particularly of the sort that worked in the Caribbean and the American South.
- Had greater resistance to disease, both Eurasian and tropical.
- Were not “wild” – they came from societies where they were used to obeying impersonal authority.
- Stuck out physically at a distance, making it easier to catch runaways.
- Were all alone: They had no safe haven to run to or natural allies to help them.
Source: Mostly “Race in North America” (2012) by Audrey Smedley and Brian D. Smedley.
- American racism against blacks
- White American racism against Natives: 1600s
- Spanish racial identity in 1492
- Black People: The Republican User’s Guide