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The First, and Last, Black Slaveowners

Anthony Johnson

Antonio the Negro was the name given to a brother from Angola captured and sold into slavery in Virginia in 1621. He was later freed and managed to become a quite successful tobacco farmer. At this point, he’d renamed himself Anthony Johnson. Johnson, enjoying his rise to riches, actually became a slaveowner himself!

Oh, you didn’t know? There were a few. But the issue is a complicated one. Some Blacks bought slaves as a way to save them from less humane owners, some even had to buy their family members to reclaim them after long bouts of separation. Others simply bought into the system and thought they could be down with the clique. Anthony Johnson was part of the latter group. Because Johnson owned a slave of his own, he was able to claim 250 acres of land based on the headright system. He then bought more slaves. And he wasn’t interested in “beating the system” of slavery by buying up brothers. In fact, this dude went to court to fight the “freedom suit” of a brother he “owned” and Johnson wasn’t letting him go.

Johnson seems like a dick who should’ve never got rich. He was one of the first Black men in America to “sell out” and turn his back on his own people while he pursued prosperity. But this ain’t the way, because they don’t see you as one of them, and when they’re done with you, they’ll do you dirtier than you could ever imagine. That’s exactly what happened in 1657, when Johnson’s white neighbor, Edmund Scarburgh, forged a letter in which Johnson acknowledged some made up “debt.” Even though Johnson was still illiterate and couldn’t have written the letter, the court awarded a massive chunk of Johnson’s land (100 acres) to pay off his “debt.” All it took was a forged note from a white man!

And it gets worse. After Johnson’s death in 1670, a white Virginian planter was allowed to seize Johnson’s land because a local court ruled that, “as a black man, Anthony Johnson was not a citizen of the colony.” The Johnson family had nearly nothing now. They went from a prosperous farming family to independent farmers with small plots. That’s all the courts left them! How much? Ironically, forty acres (no mule).

These forty remaining acres of Johnson’s original property were inherited by his grandson John Johnson Jr. He named the farm Angola, as a tribute to his grandfather’s birth country, but couldn’t afford the taxes on the land and lost it to the state. When John Johnson Jr. died in 1721, it was the end of the Johnson name (he had no children), and his grandfather’s murky “legacy.” And this pattern of “selling out” to “buy in” is so TIMELESS that we can find an almost DUPLICATE example nearly 250 years later.

William Ellison

April Ellison was a freed slave who would become South Carolina’s biggest Black slave trader in the mid-1800s. He worked for his owner William McCreight as a cotton gin apprentice, where he learned blacksmithing, machining, and carpentry. When he was freed at 26, he changed his name to William, in dedication to his former owner. This act of slavemindedness didn’t prevent “William” from becoming successful in business, however. By 1860, Ellison owned 63 slaves and 900 acres, and was a diehard supporter of the Confederate cause. Seriously. Don’t think that’s TOO crazy, though, because there’s people who think like that even nowadays. They call them Black Republicans. I’ve even heard there’s Black members of the Tea Party.

After Ellison’s death in December 1861, his sons and daughters continued to hold their father’s views on the war. His eldest grandson fought for the Confederate Army while his sons and daughters invested his entire estate into the Confederate cause. The Ellisons bought bonds, treasury notes, certificates, and Confederate currency in support of the slave-holding South. As some of us know, by the war’s end, all of these investments were worthless. Confederate money wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on. The Ellisons – as a family – went broke. By the time of Reconstruction, things were pretty bad. Not surprisingly, none of their white “friends” were available to help them stay afloat.

In other words, the Anthony Johnsons and William Ellisons of the world are no anomaly. They’re not strange cases that belong in the Black History edition of a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Trivia book. They’re like bookends, marking the very beginning and very end of American chattel slavery, and at both points we see the same type of personality – as well as the same end results. There is no winning when you try to play their game, because you’re not part of the accepted list of players! You can try to buy in by selling out if you want to, but eventually you’ll see how they do us when we try to win at their game.