The Original Power Couple

For day 14 of black history month, which is also Valentine’s Day, you might enjoy diving down the rabbit hole of historical information about the first African-American power couple in the English-speaking world, Anthony and Mary Johnson (colony of Virginia).

Most accounts emphasize Anthony, which is probably a reflection on the history of history as a field, but they were both pretty critical figures involved with a variety of early cases which started to build the legal framework that distinguished black slavery from indentured servitude – that created the US institution of slavery. (This is useful information for the “but Irish were slaves too” debates. Specifically, this is the start of where the line was drawn.) By which I mean – they weren’t slaves. The door was closing on that, but they weren’t. They were immigrant tobacco farmers. Hardworking, admired, profitable ones. It was a moment when history could have gone another direction. It didn’t, but at least they themselves escaped the trap.

(As a warning if you go googling around, there’s a bit of urban legend agitprop that claims Anthony Johnson was the first slaveowner in the US. Not true. It’s high in the search rankings for the same reasons holocaust denial is. You’ll kind of be able to tell by looking at the names of the web addresses.)

The Johnsons were wildly successful in a way that not many American blacks would be again for a very long time. Owned a lot of land, were respected in the community, and were able to get tax relief which categorized them as in some ways on equal footing to whites. They were canny. They worked hard. And they loved each other.

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