Analysis – Myne Owne Ground

Myne Own Ground: Race and Freedom on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, 1640-1676 (T.H. Breen and Stephen Innes, Oxford Press, 1980).

Conventional historical analysis of the rise of racism and slavery in the South paints a very broad brush of these as imported from European settlers from the outset of American colonization.  Authors Thomas Breen and Stephen Innes, however, counter this thought by targeting the historical records of interactions between free blacks and the rest of society along Virginia’s eastern shore during the early seventeenth century.  They insist that skin color was not an influential aspect in the treatment of blacks during the period, presenting samples from various laws, court cases, documents and other accounts that show blacks as having equal access to all of the same rights and privileges as whites.  In their eyes, property was the key to freedom, with economic concerns prevailing over any hint of racial ones.

Breen and Innes take a closer look at Anthony Johnson, known in early records as ‘Anthony a Negro’.  Johnson was astonishingly successful for a landowner in the Northampton area.  Johnson not only had a substantial amount of land but also enjoyed the ownership of his own black slaves and the fruits of consistent successful tobacco harvests.  The authors provide several court records that give insight into Johnson’s ability to interact effectively with other white gentry and middling classes over a variety of issues.  Johnson has no hesitation in suing for the return of a slave.  He also actively pursues settlement of other property rights issues successfully against white owners.  According to the authors, this proves that the judiciary of the period did not weigh the color of skin in a racist sense.  Breen and Innes also draw upon property records of tobacco and livestock, marriage agreements, wills, servant and land contracts, population records, personal inventory accounts, trial testimonial roles, and evidence of equivocal punishments for whites and blacks.

Take also the example of Francis Payne.  Payne made a unique contract and covenant with his master Eltonhead.  According to Breen and Innes, he would work the tobacco crops for Eltonhead.  But this was no ordinary arrangement.  According to the deal, Payne intended to acquire new servants for Eltonhead and provide his profits from the crops in exchange for the purchase of his freedom.  What makes the case striking is that a black slave purchased white servants to achieve his goal. “It is illuminating that no one seems to have been bothered that a black slave purchased indentured servants to obtain his own liberty.”  (p. 74)  Such a transaction lends more evidence to the argument that property equaled freedom, regardless of racial concerns.

Breen and Innes acknowledge that they are not sure why the status of blacks everywhere deteriorated after the 1680s.  They claim that a sharp rise in black population in Virginia due to the massive import of black labor at the time sparked latent racist tendencies in a fearful white minority.  (p. 108) As well, they say that migration of free blacks to other areas diluted the local status of blacks.  But conditions of property ownership were also shifting.  “By the 1670s it would have been nearly impossible for a slave to work his way out of slavery in the manner that Francis Payne had done.  The doors to economic opportunity were either shut or fast closing by that time.” (p. 114)  Perhaps the reduction and elimination of indentured whites and Indian labor worked two-fold.  As freedmen locked up the remaining remnants of property, this both removed access to land and reduced equality for blacks.  As lower class freedmen moved up in society, the void was filled by newly imported African blacks.

Breen and Innes argue that racism was not rampant within the early colonies until the end of the seventeenth century.  Why is this?  Because equal access to property was the equivalent to equal freedom and treatment during the period.  “Blacks and whites dealt with each other essentially as equals.” (p 104) Yet, what is lacking is a greater examination of the whole of Virginia as compared with Northampton County.  Did such equalities of blacks and whites permeate the entire colonial sphere, even beyond Virginia?  On the other hand, is this just a strange and unique anomaly due to special conditions in this one location?  Breen and Innes do not truly answer the question.  Then again, they do not have to.  Their premise is only to show that racism was not always an entrenched perspective in the South.  Rather, it was something that developed over time as access to property diminished for blacks.  Breen and Innes prove that property equaled freedom through examinations of Anthony Johnson and Francis Payne in Northampton, thereby proving their point.

Posted in History - Pre-Civil War South.