One Small Thing: Before the Mayflower vs. The 1619 Project

This blog does one small thing. It compares several introductory sentences in the 1619 Project to a passage written by Lerone Bennett, Jr. in his book Before the Mayflower, 5th revised edition, 1982. This book has excellent reviews on Amazon. “Lerone Bennett Jr. (October 17, 1928 – February 14, 2018) was an African-American scholar, author and social historian, known for his analysis of race relations in the United States.” “The 1619 Project is an ongoing project developed by The New York Times Magazine in 2019 with the goal of re-examining the legacy of slavery in the United States…”

From The 1619 Project, we read “In August of 1619, a ship appeared on this horizon, near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the British colony of Virginia. It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists. America was not yet America, but this was the moment it began. No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the 250 years of slavery that followed. On the 400th anniversary of this fateful moment, it is finally time to tell our story truthfully.”

From Before the Mayflower, we read “But the first black immigrants (Antoney, Isabella, and the Jamestown group) were not slaves. This is a fact of critical importance in the history of Black America. They came, these first blacks, the same way that many, perhaps most, of the first whites came — under duress and pressure. They found a system (indentured servitude) which enabled poor whites to come to America and sell their services for a stipulated number of years to planters. Under this system thousands of whites — paupers, ne’er-do-wells, religious dissenters, waifs, prisoners and prostitutes– were shipped to the colonies and sold to the highest bidder. Some were sold, as the first blacks were sold, by the captains of ships.”

The 1619 Project says that the Jamestown blacks were slaves when they were not. They were indentured. Their contracts covering their labor services for the indenture period were sold to the highest bidders. This is not the slave system that was to come, and it was not a system reserved for Africans. It also was being used for whites. This error is not meant to condemn the whole project, which has 30 essays unread by me. Bennett’s work sets the record straight against the false idea that the country’s slavery began at its very start in the early colonies, or that the record shows 400 years of unbroken oppression and racism, or that America was built by slaves.

Bennett goes on for many pages describing the society of that time and the next forty years, based on the evidence contained in the usual sources of history, such as documents, records and accounts. It’s riveting and eye-opening history, told with authority. A few extracts are in order.

“In Virginia, then, as in other colonies the first black settlers fell into a well-established socioeconomic groove which carried with it no implications of racial inferiority. That came later. But in the interim, a period of forty years or more, the first black settlers accumulated land, voted, testified in court and mingled with whites on a basis of equality. They owned other black servants, and certain blacks imported and paid for white servants whom they apparently held in servitude.”

“There were skilled farmers and artisans among the first group of African-Americans, and there are indications in the record that they were responsible for various innovations later credited to English immigrants…the governor ordered rice planted on the advice of ‘our Negroes’…”

“Like many other blacks of the period, Johnson quickly worked out his term of indenture and started accumulating property. In 1651, according to official records, he imported and paid for five servants, some of whom were white, and was granted 250 acres of land on the basis of the headright system, which permitted planters to claim fifty acres of land for each individual brought to the colony.”

(Note that this system was a form of homesteading in which land came to be owned as property by the mixing of labor owned by the importer, whose capital was needed to sustain the indentured servants. They in turn were gaining property in themselves by working off their indenture.)

“Other blacks lived in integrated communities in other areas of the colony.”

“It is scarcely possible to doubt, in the face of this evidence, that the first generation of blacks had, as J.H. Russell noted, ‘about the same industrial or economic opportunities as the free white servant.'”

“…they voted and participated in public life.”

“Nor was this sort of thing confined to Virginia.”

“In his classic work, The Negro in Colonial New England, Lorenzo J. Greene said that ‘until almost the end of the seventeenth century the records refer to the Negroes as ‘servants’ not as ‘slaves’.”

“…the colony’s power structure made little or no distinction between black and white servants, who were assigned the same tasks and were held in equal contempt.”

“Working together in the same fields, sharing the same huts, the same situation, and the same grievances, the first black and white Americans, aristocrats excepted, developed strong bonds of sympathy and mutuality. They ran away together, played together and revolted together. They mated and married, siring a sizeable mixed population. In the process the black and white servants — the majority of the colonial population — created a racial wonderland that seems somehow un-American in its lack of obsession about race and color. There was, to be sure, prejudice then, but it was largely English class prejudice which was distributed without regard to race, creed or color. There were also, needless to say, prejudiced individuals in the colony, but — and this is the fundamental difference between prejudice and racism — their personal quirks and obsessions were not focused and directed by the organized will of a community. The basic division at that juncture was between servants and free people, and there were whites and blacks on both sides of the line.”

“Of all the improbable aspects of this situation, the oddest — to modern whites and blacks — is that white people did not seem to know that they were white…the legal documents identified whites as Englishmen and/or Christians. The word white, with its burden of arrogance and biological pride, developed late in the century, as a direct result of slavery and the organized debasement of blacks.”

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9:23 am on June 22, 2020

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