Slavery and the Making of AmericaDramatic re-enactment of a slave in uniform
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The Slave Experience: Legal Rights & Gov't
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Historical Overview Legal Rights & Gov't
Legal Rights and Government
By Kimberly Sambol-Tosco

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The legal standing of African Americans in North America has changed over time, varying according to historical period and place. During the earliest years of settlement, laws delineating the civil status of African laborers did not exist. Black workers seem to have occupied a social station similar to that of white European indentured servants who were contract-bound to their employers for designated periods.

A view of Fort George in New York
A view of Fort George in New York. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.
Although their station was one of inferiority that left them vulnerable to mistreatment by masters, black men and women, especially in New Amsterdam, enjoyed certain privileges that would later be denied enslaved blacks in America. For instance, like white servants, black laborers could take their employers to court. Some, like Pedro Negretto and Manuel Rues who sued for unpaid wages, even won their cases. Documents also show that Dutch courts occasionally granted blacks freedom.

Black people in the New Netherlands occupied a spectrum of positions that ranged between slavery and freedom. The Dutch West India Company often gave half-freedom to elderly blacks. This practice benefited the company for whom older slaves were a liability rather than an asset. Additionally, half-free people were required to pay annual tributes to the company. Because half-freedom could not be inherited, the children of manumitted slaves remained bound to the master.
Illustration of mother with children from William Still, THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, p. 512
Illustration of mother with children from William Still, THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, p. 512. Library of Congress, Rare Books & Special Collections Division, 1879.
In 1662, Virginia legally recognized slavery as a hereditary, lifelong condition. Even before this statute appeared, however, many blacks were being held as slaves for life, and as black laborers gradually replaced white indentured servants as the principle source of agricultural labor during the second half of the seventeenth century, laws restricting the activities of Africans were being introduced, codifying slavery as a race-based system. South Carolina, for example, passed an Act for the Better Ordering and Governing of Negroes and Slaves in 1696. This comprehensive code outlined severe penalties for a variety of offenses committed by blacks and excused any white who caused the death of a slave while carrying out a punishment. The South Carolina act was based upon the slave codes of Barbados and became the prototype for other American colonies writing black oppression into law.

Depiction of the branding of slaves
Branding slaves. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division
Virginia was the first colony to define the status of slaves in explicit legal terms. According to the colony's 1705 law, all blacks, mulattoes, and Native Americans, all non-Christian persons brought into the colonies as servants (even should they later convert to Christianity) were considered slaves. The law went on to state that all slaves "shall be held to be real estate." Such laws, in effect, put all power in the hands of the master.

Although enslaved men and women experienced the most severe ramifications of the law, free blacks also suffered under colonial government. Among the legal restrictions placed on free blacks was a 1717 Connecticut law that required aspiring black business owners to get official permission to open shop, and when Virginia law extended voting rights in 1721, it extended them only among free white men.
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