If you have nothing better to do and would like to go down an internet rabbit hole of racist memes and history distorted into right-wing propaganda, go ahead and Google the name “Anthony Johnson.” Or better yet, search for the name on Twitter. In no time at all your head will be spinning with wild notions that an African man was the nation’s first slaveholder.
Even better, don’t do that. Instead, read Cal State Fullerton Professor Tyler Parry‘s latest essay for Black Perspectives, the online journal of the African American Intellectual History Society. The piece, which went online on July 22, demolishes the notion that Johnson, who lived in the early 17th century, was the father of American slavery:
The existing scholarship indicates that John Punch was the first man known to be perpetually enslaved on July 9, 1640, a punishment he received for attempting to flee his indenture. He absconded alongside two fellow servants, a “dutchman” named Victor and a “Scotchman called James Gregory.” Following their apprehension, his counterparts each received only one additional year upon their indenture, while Punch, listed as a “negro,” was enslaved “for the time of his natural Life.” Punch’s sentence documents an early framework for the growing attachment between Blackness and enslavement in North America, as the indentured white men did not receive similar punishment. Thus, Hugh Gwyn, the man who owned John Punch, would be the first recognized slaveholder, eliminating the spurious claim that a Black man innovated the North American system. Punch’s experience certainly foreshadowed legal maneuvers in the 18th century. As more African “servants” became permanently enslaved, their status was transmitted to their children. As historian Jennifer Morgan notes, it was this pairing of race, reproduction, and heritability that determined the racialization of chattel slavery in the Western Hemisphere.
In the piece, Parry explains that he wanted to correct the record on Johnson because of how propagandists–specifically those attacking possible reparations for African Americans–are misusing his story:
A cursory search through Twitter reveals that Johnson is evoked by those who deny Black Americans’ claims to legitimate grievances, specifically reparations. Since the HR-40 hearings of June 19, 2019, references to Johnson are especially prominent throughout social media as conservative commentators like Larry Elder and Michael Knowles use him to reject the viability of reparations. Similar claims are evoked by the average conservative Twitter user. In one tweet to Senator Elizabeth Warren, a supporter of reparations, a user disingenuously stated: “you are aware the institution of slavery was brought to these shores by a black Angolan, Anthony Johnson … And as such, please track down his descendants & ask them for reparations.” Knowles even wrote a column declaring that Johnson was America’s first formally recognized slave owner, asking, “Do his descendants get reparations?”
Not to spoil Parry’s work, but yeah, if there are reparations, then absolutely, Johnson’s descendants should get them, too.
Click here to read Parry’s essay.
Anthony Pignataro has been a journalist since 1996. He spent a dozen years as Editor of MauiTime, the last alt weekly in Hawaii. He also wrote three trashy novels about Maui, which were published by Event Horizon Press. But he got his start at OC Weekly, and returned to the paper in 2019 as a Staff Writer.