Black people in early America weren’t slaves. After this lawsuit, they were.

The only date definitely connected to John Casor’s life is this day in
1654 or 1655. It’s not when he was born, when he achieved something or
when he died. It’s when he became a slave.

Casor was originally an indentured servant, which meant he was
practically a slave in some senses. But what was bought or sold wasn’t
him, it was his contract of indenture, which obligated him to work for
its holder for the period it set. At the end of that time, indentured
servants—who could be of any race—were considered legally free and sent
out into the world.

This might sound like a rough deal, but indenture was how the British
colonizers who lived in what would later become the United States
managed to populate the land and get enough people to do the
back-breaking work of farming crops like tobacco in the South.

People who survived their period of indenture (many didn’t) went on to
live free lives in the colonies, often after receiving some kind of
small compensation like clothes, land or tools to help set them up.

That was the incentive that caused many poor whites to indenture
themselves and their families and move to the so-called New World. But
Africans who were indentured were often captured and brought over
against their will. That's what happened to the holder of Casor’s
indenture, Anthony Johnson. Johnson served out his contract and went on
to run his own tobacco farm and hold his own indentured servants, among
them Casor. At this time, the colony of Virginia had very few black
people in it: Johnson was one of the original 20.

After a disagreement about whether or not Casor's contract was lapsed, a
court ruled in favor of Johnson and Casor saw the status of his
indenture turn into slavery, where he—not his contract—was considered
property. Casor claimed that he had served his indenture of “seven or
Eight years” and seven more years on top of that. The court sided with
Johnson, who claimed that Casor was his slave for life.

So Casor became the first person to be arbitrarily declared a slave for
life in the U.S. (An earlier case had ended with a man named John Punch
being declared a slave for life as a punishment for trying to escape his
indentured servitude. His fellow escapees, who were white, were not
punished in this way.) Of course, as Wesleyan University notes, “the
Transatlantic slave trade from Africa to the Americas had been around
for over a century already, originating around 1500.” Slaves, usually
captured and sold by other African tribes, were transported across the
Atlantic to the Americas. Around 11 million people were transported from
1500 to 1850, mostly to Brazil and the Caribbean islands. If they
arrived in America, originally they became indentured servants; if they
arrived elsewhere, they became slaves.

Casor’s story is particularly grim in hindsight. His slip into slavery
would be followed by many, many other people of African descent who were
declared property in what became the United States. It was a watershed
moment in the history of institutional slavery.

“About seven years later, Virginia made this practice legal for
everyone, in 1661, by making it state law for any free white, black or
Indian to be able to own slaves, along with indentured servants,”. The
step from there to a racialized idea of slavery wasn’t a huge one, she
writes, and by the time Johnson died in 1670, his race was used to
justify giving his plantation to a white man rather than Johnson’s
children by his wife, Mary. He was “not a citizen of the colony,” a
judge ruled, because he was black.

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