Geitner Simmons of Regions of Mind has a fascinating post in response to the new PBS series on Slavery and the Making of America. He quotes from Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (Harvard Belknap, 1998):
In regard to free blacks during that period, Berlin writes: “A considerable portion of these new arrivals — fully one-fifth in New Amsterdam, St. Augustine, and Virginia’s eastern shore — eventually gained their freedom. Some attained modest privilege and authority in mainland society.”
Of free blacks in the 17th-century Chesapeake region, he explains: “When they found the weak points, they burst the constraints of servitude, race, and impoverishment. The fluidity of colonial society, the ill-defined meaning of slavery, and the ambiguous notions of race allowed Atlantic creoles to carve a place for themselves in the Chesapeake and occasionally achieve a modest prosperity, despite the growing weight of discriminatory legislation.”
A fascinating aspect of this history involves the legal circumstances in the Chesapeake:
Like their white neighbors, free people of color were a litigious people. Throughout the 17th century, they sued and were sued with great frequency, testifying and petitioning as to their rights. Though many black men and women fell prey to the snares of Anglo-American jurisprudence — bastardy acts, tax forfeitures, and debt penalties — their failure was rarely one of ignorance, as members of the charter generation proved adept at challenging the law on its own terms and rarely abandoned a losing cause without appeal.
The rise of plantation slavery brought wide-ranging change. Berlin writes: “The touchstones of the charter generations — linguistic fluency, familiarity with the commercial practices of the Atlantic, knowledge of European conventions and institutions, and (occasionally) their partial European ancestry — vanished in the age of the plantation.”