Apr 28 2010
Many people are rightfully concerned about the creation of a police state in Arizona (and now, Texas, since apparently, Texas intends to put a similar law in place. MY fear is more long-term, more about the confluence of economic interests and insidious law. In America, we already have an example of a history of laws passing over time that gradually targetted a particular people, in pursuit of the agricultural interests of the south – and that example is what eventually became the legal framework of slavery. Here is a brief overview of some of the issues:
Whatever the status of these first Africans to arrive at Jamestown, it is clear that by 1640, at least one African had been declared a slave. This African was ordered by the court “to serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural life here or elsewhere.”
The grounds for this harsh sentence presumabley (sic) lay in the fact that he was non-Christian rather than in the fact that he was physically dark. But religious beliefs could change, while skin color could not. Within a generation race, not religion, was being made the defining characteristic of enslaved Virginians, The terrible transformation to racial slavery was underway.
• Philip Cowen Case: At her death in 1664, a Mrs. Amye Beazlye left to her cousin a black servant named Philip Cowen. The will stated that Cowen should work for the cousin for eight years, then be given his freedom and three barrels of corn and a suit of clothes. At the end of the eight years, the cousin extended the contract three years. At the end of those three years, he informed Cowen that another nine years of service was due. In 1675, Cowen petitioned the court for his freedom. The court sided with Cowen, asking the owner to release him from servitude and to pay him the corn and the cost of a suit.
• Fernando Case: A bondservant for life, Fernando petitioned the court in 1667 for his freedom, arguing that, since he was a Christian and had spent several years in England, he should serve no longer than an Englishman was required to serve. The court dismissed the suit. Fernando appealed to a higher court. (Unfortunately, no record of the higher court’s decision exists.)
(there are two other cases at this link)
Three servants working for a farmer named Hugh Gwyn ran away to Maryland. Two were white; one was black. They were captured in Maryland and returned to Jamestown, where the court sentenced all three to thirty lashes — a severe punishment even by the standards of 17th-century Virginia. The two white men were sentenced to an additional four years of servitude — one more year for Gwyn followed by three more for the colony. But, in addition to the whipping, the black man, a man named John Punch, was ordered to “serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural Life here or elsewhere.” John Punch no longer had hope for freedom.
That’s the legal background to the gradual erosion of even the limited rights African Americans had at the founding of this nation, until the legal framework was built up to decide, once and for all, that brown people born slaves should remain so their entire lives, and not as people even, but as property. So, a people arrive in the country with iffy legal status are gradually reduced to permanent slave status. But how about people whose legal status is known? How about free blacks?
The passage of the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act, fueled a huge and vastly profitable underground industry that took full advantage of the inferior legal status of free and enslaved blacks. The law made it possible for a white person to claim any black person as a fugitive, and placed the burden of proof on the captive. Free blacks living in Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and other cities near the borders of slave states were especially vulnerable, though several well-known cases demonstrate that no state was immune.
Slave speculators (or slavers) — who legally purchased the rights to runaways, captured them, and then resold them at a profit — often seized blacks at random, banking on their inability to prove their status to the satisfaction of a magistrate. In one case, a slave speculator who attempted to seize AME Bishop Richard Allen found himself in debtors’ prison, charged with attempted kidnapping, false accusation and perjury by Allen, who dropped the charges several months later.
I would like to think that we are so far past this as a country that this could never happen to Mexicans in the south, who are working as day laborers in agricultural fields, but since in some cases Mexicans have already seen slavery conditions, and given our low level of sympathy for Mexicans as our suspicions about the legal migrant status is provoked, are they really so far off from the precarious position African Americans were in so long ago?
I don’t think so.