March 8th, 1655

Virginia Colony Court Declares Black Indentured Servant Enslaved for Life

John Casor, a man enslaved in the Virginia Colony, sued for his freedom in 1655, arguing that he was an indentured servant who had been forced by his “owner,” Anthony Johnson, to serve past his term. The court ruled against Casor, declared him a slave for life, and ordered him to return to Johnson.

The first Africans brought to Virginia were treated as indentured servants. After working their contracts for passage to Virginia, each was granted fifty acres of land and released to live free. During Casor's lifetime, slavery became entrenched and indentured servitude a less economical source of labor. In their ruling in Johnson v. Parker on March 8, 1655, the court of Northhampton County upheld Johnson's right to hold Casor as a slave, ordering “John Casor, Negro, forthwith return unto the service of the said master Anthony Johnson.”

In 1640, prior to Casor's civil suit, the Virginia Governor's Council sentenced John Punch, a black indentured servant accused of attempting to escape with two other indentured servants who were white. Punch was sentenced to life servitude as punishment, while the two white indentured servants were only sentenced to four extra years of labor. The fates of Casor and Punch signaled a shift from indentured servitude to a form of racialized slavery that would come to shape America.