People & Events
Africans in court
1641 - 1667

Resource Bank Contents

Africans in Court

There were no laws in early in 17th-century Virginia that defined the rights, or lack of rights, of blacks. Four cases that came before Virginia courts illustrate their flexibility in the early decades of the colony -- a flexibility that would disappear as the end of the century approached. . .

Virginia, 1639: The first law to exclude "Negroes" from normal protections by the government was enacted.

John Graweere Case: In 1641, John Graweere appeared before the court, asking for permission to buy the freedom of his child in order that he could raise the child as a Christian. Even though the child's mother was a slave, the court granted Graweere permission.

*Virginia, 1662: Law that stipulated that all children born in the colony to a slave mother would be enslaved.

Philip Cowen Case: At her death in 1664, a Mrs. Amye Beazlye left to her cousin a black servant named Philip Cowen. The will stated that Cowen should work for the cousin for eight years, then be given his freedom and three barrels of corn and a suit of clothes. At the end of the eight years, the cousin extended the contract three years. At the end of those three years, he informed Cowen that another nine years of service was due. In 1675, Cowen petitioned the court for his freedom. The court sided with Cowen, asking the owner to release him from servitude and to pay him the corn and the cost of a suit.

Fernando Case: A bondservant for life, Fernando petitioned the court in 1667 for his freedom, arguing that, since he was a Christian and had spent several years in England, he should serve no longer than an Englishman was required to serve. The court dismissed the suit. Fernando appealed to a higher court. (Unfortunately, no record of the higher court's decision exists.)

Virginia, 1667: Christian baptisms would no longer affect the bondage of blacks or Indians, preventing enslaved workers from improving their legal status by changing their religion.

Elizabeth Key Case: The illegitimate daughter of an enslaved black mother and a free white settler father, Elizabeth Key spent the first five or six years of her life at home. Then in 1636, ownership of Elizabeth was transferred to another white settler, for whom she was required to serve for nine years before being released from bondage. At some point, ownership was transferred again, this time to a justice of the peace. When this owner died in 1655, Elizabeth, through her lawyer, petitioned the court, asking for her freedom; by this time she had already served 19 years. The court granted her her freedom. Unfortunately, the decision was appealed to a higher court. The court overturned the decision, ruling that Elizabeth was a slave. Elizabeth and her lawyer didn't stop there. They petitioned the General Assembly, which appointed a committee to look into the matter. The committee sent the case back to the courts for retrial. Elizabeth was ultimately freed.

Court document regarding Anthony Johnson

antonio portrait.jpg (13247 bytes)   antonio-document.jpg (21693 bytes)

By virtue of a writt granted to me from [names listed here, which are illegible] John Stringer Escheator for the countys of Northhampton and Accomack to enquire what lands Anthonio Johnson late of Accomack County either in his life tyme. . . a jury of free. . . in the said Accomack County to enquire. . . doth declare that the said Anthony Johnson lately deceased in his life tyme was seized of fifty acres of land now in the possession of Rich. Johnson in the County of Accomack aforesaid and further that the said Anthony Johnson was a negro and by consequence an alien and for that cause the said land doth escheat to this . . . .

In August of 1670, several months after Anthony Johnson's death, a jury in a Virginia court decided that, because "he was a Negro and by consequence an alien," ownership of the 250 acres Johnson once owned should be escheated, or reverted, to England.

Anthony and Mary Johnson had sold 200 acres of this land to two white settlers; the other 50 they gave to their son, Richard, who soon thereafter sold the land to another white settler.

Image Credit: From the collections of the Library of Congress

From the collections of the Library of Congress


June 1680-ACT X. An act for preventing Negroes Insurrections.

WHEREAS the frequent meeting of considerbale numbers of negroe slaves under pretence of feasts and burialls is judged of dangerous consequence; for prevention whereof for the future, Bee it enacted by the kings most excellent majestie by and with the consent of the generall assembly, and it is hereby enacted by the authority aforesaid, that from and after the publication of this law, it shall not be lawfull for any negroe or other slave to carry or arme himselfe with any club, staffe, gunn, sword or any other weapon of defence or offence, nor to goe or depart from of his masters ground without a certificate from his master, mistris or overseer and such permission not to be granted but upon perticuler and necessary occasions; and every negroe or slave soe offending not haveing a certificate as aforesaid shalbe sent to the next constable, who is hereby enjoyned and required to give the said negroe twenty lashes on his bare back well layd on, and soe sent home to his said master, mistris or overseer. And it is further enacted by the authority aforesaid that if any negroe or other slave shall presume to lift up his hand in opposition against any christian, shall for every such offence, upon due proofe made thereof by the oath of the party before a magistrate, have and receive thirty lashes on his bare back well laid on. And it is hereby further enacted by the authority aforesaid that if any negroe or other slave shall absent himself from his masters service and lye hid and lurking in obscure places, comitting injuries to the inhabitants, and shall resist any person or persons that shalby any lawfull authority by imployed to apprehend and take the said negroe, that then in case of such resistance, it shalbe lawfull for such person or persons to kill the said negroe or slave soe lying out and resisting, and that this law be once every six months published at the respective county courts and parish churches within this colony.

Source: Hening, ed., The Statutes at Large, vol. 2, pp. 481-482.


Virginia, 1682: A law establishing the racial distinction between servants and slaves was enacted.

*A 1691 Virginia law declared that any white man or woman who married a "Negro, mulatto, or Indian" would be banished from the colony forever.


In 1705, the Virginia General Assembly:

"All servants imported and brought into the Country...who were not Christians in their native Country...shall be accounted and be slaves. All Negro, mulatto and Indian slaves within this dominion...shall be held to be real estate. If any slave resist his master...correcting such slave, and shall happen to be killed in such correction...the master shall be free of all if such accident never happened."

The code, which would also serve as a model for other colonies, went even further. The law imposed harsh physical punishments, since enslaved persons who did not own property could not be required to pay fines. It stated that slaves needed written permission to leave their plantation, that slaves found guilty of murder or rape would be hanged, that for robbing or any other major offence, the slave would receive sixty lashes and be placed in stocks, where his or her ears would be cut off, and that for minor offences, such as associating with whites, slaves would be whipped, branded, or maimed.

- Virginia General Assembly declaration, 1705