While Africans in colonial America held very little social or political power, their contributions not only supported the Southern colonies but led to their eventual prosperity.
The first Africans brought to the colonies of what would be the United States had been enslaved by the Portugese. In the British colonies, they maintained a legal status similar to white indentured servants. Unlike the white indentured servants, however, the enslaved Africans did not volunteer their labor.
However, the Africans' status in the United States slowly deteriorated over the course of the century, as colonies slowly added laws to permit slavery and restrict the rights of Africans. There are two examples of this shift from indentured servitude to the institution of legal slavery for blacks in the British-American colonies. One is the story of John Punch, a black indentured servant who ran away from his boss along with two white indentured servants in 1640. All were captured. While the white indentured servants had their terms extended by four years each, Punch had his term of service extended to the rest of his life.
The second example is the case of John Casor. He was an indentured servant who had fled from his boss, Anthony Johnson (who, ironically, had also been among those first African captives brought to the 13 colonies until he earned his freedom and bought his own piece of land). In 1654, Johnson took Casor to court to force him back into servitude. Casor claimed he had earned his freedom, but the court did not agree—and went a step further to declare that Casor would be Johnson’s property for the rest of his life.
These decisions laid the legal foundation for lifetime servitude. More laws followed, including one in 1662 that said children were born into slavery if their mothers were enslaved, and one in 1705 that declared all non-Christian servants brought to the colonies would automatically be enslaved.
While slavery existed in every colony at one time or another, it was the economic structure of farming in the South that depended on slave labor to prosper. A large labor force was needed to work the large plantations that grew labor-intensive crops like tobacco and rice. That labor demand was filled by the forced labor of Africans. While most enslaved people worked in the field, others were used in the enslavers’ homes, assisting the owners in running the plantation and household as manservants, maids, cooks, and nannies. As enslaved people became more and more in demand in the South, the slave trade that spanned from Africa to the colonies became a source of economic wealth as well.
Working long hours, living in crude conditions, and suffering abuses from their owners, African captives faced harsh conditions in colonial America. Families were often broken apart, with husbands and wives sold to different owners than their children. For those enslaved during this time, there was little hope of escape from slave life. None of the colonies outlawed slavery prior to the Revolutionary War, so running away to freedom was extremely difficult. There was a small chance a captive would be freed when their enslaver died, but it was equally likely that their family would be split up to surviving family members. Still, the enslaved resisted their bondage, with uprisings like the Stono Rebellion in 1739.
Despite these hardships, Africans in colonial America developed a vibrant culture that embodied a combination of resistance against their enslavers, adopted Christian worship, and customs from their native Africa. Storytelling was an art form as well as a means of sharing critical information about survival for the enslaved, and since they were not allowed to read or write, it was the primary way African-American history was passed down. Music and dance, which was central to African life, became sustenance for slaves’ emotional lives in America, especially in their prayer and worship practices. Many cultural elements from colonial America still exists in African-American culture today.