Quoting John Rolfe’s account of the event, John Smith noted that “About the last of August came in a Dutch manne of warre that sold us twenty Negars.” Thus began the importation of Africans to America though their early status of servants or slaves may still be questioned.
Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com
White and Black Servants in Early America
“Thanks to John Smith we know that Negroes first came to the British continental colonies in 1619. What we do not know is exactly when Negroes were first enslaved there. This question has been debated by historians for the past seventy years, the critical point being whether Negroes were enslaved almost from their first importation or whether they were at first simply servants and only later reduced to the status of slaves.
During the nineteenth century historians assumed almost universally that the first Negroes came to Virginia as slaves. So close was their acquaintance with the problem of racial slavery that it did not occur to them that Negroes could ever have been anything but slaves.
Philip A. Bruce, the first man to probe with some thoroughness into the early years of American slavery, adopted this view in 1896, although he emphasized that the original difference in treatment between white servants and Negroes was merely that Negroes served for life.
James C. Ballagh . . . took the position that the first Negroes served merely as servants and that enslavement did not begin until around 1660, when statutes bearing on slavery were passed for the first time. Writing on the free Negro in Virginia for the Johns Hopkins series, John H. Russell in 1913 tackled the central question and showed that some Negroes were indeed servants but concluded that “between 1640 and 1660 slavery was fast becoming an established fact. In this twenty years the colored population was divided, part being servants and part being slaves, and some who were servants defended themselves with increasing difficulty from the encroachment of slavery.”
Ulrich Philips of Georgia, impressed with the geniality of both slavery and twentieth-century race relations, found no natural prejudice in the white man and expressed his “conviction that Southern racial asperities were mainly superficial, and that the two great elements are fundamentally in accord.”
[Sociologists and social psychologists] . . . “Liberal on the race question almost to a man, [tended] to see slavery as the initial cause of the Negro’s current degradation. The modern Negro was the unhappy victim of long association with base status. Sociologists, though uninterested in tired questions of historical evidence, could not easily assume a natural prejudice in the white man as the cause of slavery. Prejudice must have followed enslavement, not vice versa; else any liberal program of action would be badly compromised.
Ironically there might have been no historical controversy [regarding when racial prejudice began] if every historian dealing with the subject had exercised greater care with facts and greater restraint in interpretation. Too often the debate entered the realm of inference and assumption. For the crucial years after 1619 there is simply not enough evidence to indicate with any certainty whether Negroes were treated like white servants or not. No historian has found anything resembling proof one way or the other. The first Negroes were sold to the English settlers, yet so were other Englishmen.
That some Negroes were held as slaves after about 1640 is no indication, however that American slavery popped into the world fully developed at that time. Many historians . . . have shown slavery to be a gradual development, a process not completed until the eighteenth century. [Some] Negroes served only the term usual for white servants, and others were completely free. One Negro freeman, Anthony Johnson, himself owned a Negro. Obviously the enslavement of some Negroes did not mean the immediate enslavement of all.”
(Modern Tensions and the Origins of American Slavery, Winthrop D. Jordan, Journal of Southern History, Volume XXVIII, February, 1962, pp. 18 -25)