Jack Kerwick

An honest discussion of race would mention what no less a figure than black Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates recently discovered: free blacks were in America before slavery. While researching the book and documentary, The African-Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, Gates admits to having been shocked to discover that blacks freely came to America, to Florida, as early as 1513—over 100 years earlier than the standard date of 1619. And the one black man whose name is now known was a conquistador (!) who came in search of the Fountain of Youth with Ponce de Leon.

Gates also notes that it is simply not true that blacks didn’t become aware of Christianity until they were enslaved by Europeans. Many Africans who were eventually sold to Europeans—at least one out of four—came from the Kingdom of Angola, where they had been converted to Roman Catholicism as early on as the 15th century.

Gates delivers a double whammy to the orthodox line on race and slavery in America when he reveals both that it was the “African elites” who “converted” the African masses to Christianity and that it was these same elites—not European abductors—who sold their fellow black Africans into slavery across the Atlantic.

Of the 12.5 million Africans sold during the era of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, Gates further observes, only about 388,000 were shipped to America.

An honest discussion of race in America would include the fact that whites were slaves, for sure; but it would also have to accommodate the obscene truth that as many as 4,000 free black families owned slaves in the antebellum South. More stunning still is that, arguably, the first slave master in early America was a black man!

Anthony Johnson—a name, doubtless, of which few people today, black or white, would have heard—was an Angolan who was first sold by Africans to Arabs before winding up as an indentured servant in Virginia. There, he attained his freedom, became a planter, and acquired his own indentured servants. One of the latter, John Casor, a black man, served his mandatory seven years—but Johnson refused to set him free. Through a long, windy series of court battles, Johnson succeeded in prevailing upon the courts to declare Casor Johnson’s servant for life. Slavery was born, as this was the very first time in the colonies when it was legally determined that a person who had committed no crime had to spend the rest of his remaining existence in bondage.

We are a long ways off from having a truly honest discussion of race. Now we see why.

Jack Kerwick

Jack Kerwick received his doctoral degree in philosophy from Temple University. His area of specialization is ethics and political philosophy. He is a professor of philosophy at several colleges and universities in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Jack blogs at Beliefnet.com: At the Intersection of Faith & Culture. Contact him at jackk610@verizon.net or friend him on facebook. You can also follow him on twitter.