Almost from the beginning there was a bifurcation of the black population in America. The blacks who came to America in colonial times were divided into two distinct categories. The social status of one group was fundamentally different from that of the other (Porter 1943:4). One of those groups, the “elite”, has traditionally been much smaller in number than the other, but nevertheless extremely important. The larger group has always been the underclass. Elite blacks generally have had certain limited rights, similar, though rarely equal, to those of European immigrants of the same economic rung. The underclass has had much fewer rights and, at times, none at all. A dichotomy. What was the basis of this differential treatment? Skin color? Not entirely. And not initially.
The criteria for dividing the two classes have shifted from time to time. The three basic determinants, wealth, skin color and acculturation, generally operate in unison; but at various times in history each has taken its turn as the dominant co-factor. In recent times the dividing line between the two generic classes, has been defined primarily by relative wealth. In earlier times skin color was the primary basis of class differentiation; but, in even earlier times, the basis of division was cultural, specifically, religious.
In the early 17th century, when blacks first arrived in colonial America, Europeans considered all non-Christians, black and otherwise, anathema to their way of life and oppressed and dehumanized them on that basis; especially those like the West Africans, who worshiped nature and ancestor spirits in contradiction of biblical stricture. On that basis, un-acculturated Africans were denied fundamental rights. However, the first blacks to come to colonial America were not animists. They were blacks who were acclimated to Western culture; whose acceptance of Christianity, in fact, guaranteed them, in the early 1600s at least, rights similar to those of the European. During the first half of the 17th century, the treatment of all servants, red, black and white, was very much the same (Lawrence-McIntye 1984:7).
In general, blacks did not arrive in North America directly from Africa. Most came indirectly; many from other colonies, the West Indies in particular; and since blacks had been among the European population since at least the middle ages, some undoubtedly came from Europe itself. Furthermore, the first black arrivals to colonial America were not slaves, at least not in the sense that the term would take on later. Their status was that of “indentured servant“. At the time of their arrival at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619, slavery as an institution did not exist on the northern continent. Though black slavery was long established in the West Indies and South America, it would be another 50 years before it would be instituted in North America. At first glance the difference between slave and indentured servant may not seem important. The one critical difference, however, was length of servitude . During this grace period before the arrival of slavery, black indentured servants, like their white counterparts, were kept for a finite period of time and then freed, often being assigned land in the same way that whites were (Franklin 1988:53).
These first black bondsmen were treated much the same as whites, and even intermarried or, at the very least, interbred with them. There was apparently no inordinate emphasis on racial origins. And according to the common law at that time, the offspring of these original freed indentured servants were also free.
Hence the descendants of black servants who completed their terms of indenture became the nucleus of a growing population of mixed-race, free individuals in the Chesapeake area (Virginia, Maryland). These early African-Americans, black and mulatto, lived in relative harmony among their white neighbors (evidently intimately so) until about 1660.
There was a relatively sudden shift in the colonial governments’ attitude towards blacks and mulattoes in the second half of the 17th century. It was during this period that slavery as a full-blown institution was established in the continental colonies. Black slavery, as it currently existed in other New World colonies, was a brutal and dehumanizing system (Franklin 1988:53-63). The supposedly innate inferiority of blacks made them natural slaves. The slave was further dehumanized by the Commercial Revolution, which propagated “the ruthless exploitation of any commodities that could be viewed as economic goods”, including, and even especially, the slave (Franklin 1988:28). The enormous labor demands of a burgeoning industrialism made the slave trade a lucrative business. African slaves were bought and sold like cattle, often branded (Bennett 1982:49) and had virtually no rights:
…they were whipped…separated from loved ones, deprived of education, terrorized, raped, forced into prostitution and worked beyond the limits of human endurance (Fogel 1984:107).
The adoption of such a system by colonial America, would inevitably adversely effect the preexisting free black and mulatto population, but not necessarily to any extensive degree. This social segment had managed to coexist with slavery in every other instance throughout the New World. Heretofore, in every other slave driven society founded by Europeans, an intermediate free black (predominantly mulatto) class was recognized, allowed certain rights (most importantly freedom), and in some cases even prospered, some becoming slave owners themselves. One might have expected colonial America to develop a similar relationship with its free black and mulatto population, in which case this group might have retained the rights it had acquired during the American grace.
Instead, there was a precipitous decline in the social and economic status of free blacks and mulattoes and a steadily increasing curtailing of their rights. This drastic decline was caused by the arrival of chattel slavery to the colonies, true enough. But something new was added. Along with the North American style of slavery came a unique and persistent impulse to reduce all blacks, including mulattoes, to the status of slaves; to insist on enslavement as the natural condition of all blacks. This phenomenon occurs no where else in new world colonies and is therefore not a byproduct of black slavery. This change in attitude was mainly due to the simultaneous emergence of an overarching concept in Western thought, the doctrine of white supremacy. Racial slavery and white supremacy were in fact intimately intertwined and both burgeoned simultaneously in colonial America.
At this particular juncture the philosophy behind slavery shifted its emphasis; from the the doctrine of black inferiority to its corollary, the notion of white superiority. The American colonizers began to think of themselves as the heirs to a “manifest destiny”. They were a chosen people, the descendants of the ancient Aryans, the legendary pure white race who, by virtue of innate superiority, were destined to triumph over all other races.
They could and did see themselves as the most vital and energetic of those Aryan peoples who spilled westward, “revitalized” the Roman Empire, spread throughout Europe to England, and crossed the Atlantic in their relentless westward drive (Horsman, 5).