One of the less well-known aspects of the history of slavery is how many and how often non-whites owned and traded slaves in early America. Free black slaveholders could be found at one time or another “in each of the thirteen original states and later in every state that countenanced slavery,” historian R. Halliburton Jr. observed.
The first legal slave owner in American history was a black tobacco farmer named Anthony Johnson.
The wording of the statement is important. Anthony Johnson was not the first slave owner in American history, but he was, according to historians, among the first to have his lifetime ownership of a servant legally sanctioned by a court.
A former indentured servant himself, Anthony Johnson was a “free negro” who owned a 250-acre farm in Virginia during the 1650s, with five indentured servants under contract to him. One of them, a black man named John Casor, claimed that his term of service had expired years earlier and Johnson was holding him illegally. In 1654, a civil court found that Johnson in fact owned Casor’s services for life, an outcome historian R Halliburton Jr. calls “one of the first known legal sanctions of slavery — other than as a punishment for crime.”