Slavery in Virginia during the colonial period

This picture depicts the 20 men and women from Africa arriving on a slave ship and being sold in the first North American slave auction in 1619 Jamestown, Va. By British and international custom, Africans could be held in servitude for life, though white Christian indentured servants could only be held for a limited term


Black America has suffered throughout American history because of the fundamental unfair application of our system of justice.  However, this is not to say that black Americans have not benefitted from the egalitarian principles set forth in the American Constitution.

In fact, it can be argued these very principles, coupled with the Civil War Amendments (13th, 14th, 15th), formed the very basis for the gains made by black Americans during the civil rights struggles of the last century.

This ASALH topic, however, deals with colonial Virginia. It can be said that Virginia led the way in establishing the slave codes (laws established to determine the status of slaves and the rights of their owners) in colonial America.

A true assessment of race and the American legal process during this period requires the acceptance of certain unpleasant facts. In colonial America, many of the Founding Fathers owned slaves and most, either directly or indirectly, profited from this system.

Ultimately, the American system of slavery was based on race and color. The late African- American federal jurist A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr. wrote the seminal study on this topic in his 1978 book: “In the Matter of Color: Race and the American Legal Process 1: The Colonial Period.” He wrote in the book’s first passages:

“From a black perspective… the Constitution’s references to justice, welfare, and liberty were mocked by the treatment meted out to blacks from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries through the courts, in legislative statutes, and in those provisions of the Constitution that sanctioned slavery for the majority of black Americans and allowed disparate treatment for those few blacks legally free.”

In 1619, the arrival of the first 20 documented captive Africans arrived in Jamestown, Va. Although these 20 were not slaves, their actual legal status remains unknown. During this period, any Spanish subject who had been baptized was set free under English law. These 20 persons were captured from a Spanish slave ship by the Dutch and delivered to the Virginia colony.

Jamestown was subject to English law at the time, and these 20 black persons may have been free. The first slave codes are enacted in Virginia some 60 years later between 1680 and 1682.  Prior to that time, chattel slavery was not a common practice in Virginia or the other colonies. After 1682, however, the harsh provisions of slavery were introduced in Virginia.

In 1691, the prohibition against racial intermarriage (miscegenation) became law. White women would be banished from the Virginia colony if involved with a black man; however, white men–who outnumbered white women–were treated quite differently.

For instance, it was not against the law for a white man to carry on a meretricious relationship with a black slave woman, or for that black woman to have a child by a white man. This was not so for white women.

In 1705, Virginia declared slaves to be the “property” of their owners and held in “fee simple,” thus ensuring chattel slavery.  In fact, the 1705 law stated: “…All such slaves may be taken on execution as other chattels.”

From 1705 through 1792, Virginia completed its comprehensive slave code, essentially denying black human beings the guaranteed rights of white people.  For instance, in court proceedings involving only blacks, black people were allowed to testify in court, but their testimony was admissible only against other black people.  On the other hand, no white man could ever be found guilty of a crime on the word of a black person.

There was little relief in the court system against the institution of slavery. Historically, other slaveholding states and territories adopted the harsh provisions of the Virginia slave code as their own.

Only after the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War in 1865 were black Americans freed from this horrific yoke of bondage in Virginia and the other slaveholding states. However, blacks were then subjected to Jim Crow, which was another form of slavery, but that’s for another article.

Almost all of these slaveholding areas were located in the southern part of the United States.  They simply refused to concede defeat or to give up this peculiar institution — a euphemistic term white southerners used for slavery–until forced to do so at the conclusion of the Civil War.

Attorney Jacqueline Hubbard graduated from the Boston University Law School. She is currently the president of the St. Petersburg Branch of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Inc.

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