Boys and girls of European and African descent in Colonial America shared commonalities initially as unfree laborers, with promises of emancipation for all. However, as labor costs and demands changed, white servitude disappeared and slavery in perpetuity prevailed for the majority of blacks in the South following the American Revolution. Children were aware of differences in their legal status, social positions, life changing opportunities, and vulnerabilities within an environment where blackness signaled slavery or the absence of liberty, and whiteness garnered license or freedom. Slavery and freedom existed concomitantly, and relationships among children, even black ones, in North America were affected by time and place. Slave societies and societies with slaves determined the nature of interactions among enslaved and emancipated children. To be sure, few, if any, freed or free-born blacks did not have a relative or friend who was not or had never been enslaved, especially in states when gradual emancipation laws liberated family members born after a specific date and left older relatives in thralldom. As a result, free blacks were never completely aloof from their enslaved contemporaries. And, freedom was more meaningful if and when enjoyed by all. Just as interactions among enslaved and free black children varied, slaveholding children were sometimes benevolent and at other times brutal toward those they claimed as property. And, enslaved children did not always assume subservient positions under masters and mistresses in the making. Ultimately, fields of play rather than fields of labor fostered the most fair and enjoyable moments among slaveholding and enslaved children. Play days for enslaved girls and boys ended when they were mature enough to work outside their own abodes. As enslaved children entered the workplace, white boys of means, often within slaveholding families, engaged in formal studies, while white girls across classes received less formal education but honed skills associated with domestic arts. The paths of white and black children diverged as they reached adolescence, but there were instances when they shared facets of literacy, sometimes surreptitiously, and developed genuine friendships that mitigated the harshness of slavery. Even so, the majority of unfree children survived the furies of bondage by inculcating behavior that was acceptable for both a slave and a child.
“Twenty and odd” Africans arrived in Virginia aboard a Dutch vessel in 1619 shortly after permanent colonization of the English Americas began. There has been significant academic debate about whether the enslavement of peoples of African descent in England’s early 17th-century colonies was an inevitable or “unthinking decision” and about the nature and degree of anti-black racism during the 17th century. The legal and social status of African peoples was more flexible at first in the English colonies than it later became. Some Africans managed to escape permanent enslavement and a few Africans, such as Anthony Johnson, even owned servants of their own. There was no legal basis for enslavement in the British Americas for the first several decades of settlement and slave and servant codes emerged only gradually. Labor systems operated by custom rather than through any legal mechanisms of coercion. Most workers in the Americas experienced degrees of coercion. In the earliest years of plantation production, peoples from Africa, Europe, and the Americas often toiled alongside each other in the fields. Large numbers of Native Americans were captured and forced to work on plantations in the English Americas and many whites worked in agricultural fields as indentured and convict laborers. There were a wide variety of different kinds of coerced labor beyond enslavement in the 17th century and ideas about racial difference had yet to become as determinative as they would later be. As the staple crop plantation system matured and became entrenched on the North American mainland in the late 17th and early 18th centuries and planters required a large and regular supply of slaves, African laborers became synonymous with large-scale plantation production. The permeable boundaries between slavery and freedom disappeared, dehumanizing racism became more entrenched and U.S.-based planters developed slave codes premised on racial distinctions and legal mechanisms of coercion that were modeled on Caribbean precedents.
Jane T. Merritt
From the planter societies and subsistence settlements of the 17th century to the global markets of the late 18th century, white, black, and Indian women participated extensively in the early American economy. As the colonial world gave way to an independent nation and household economies yielded to cross-Atlantic commercial networks, women played an important role as consumers and producers. Was there, however, a growing gendered divide in the American economy by the turn of the 19th century? Were there more restrictions on women’s business activities, property ownership, work lives, consumer demands, or productive skills? Possibly, we ask the wrong questions when exploring women’s history. By posing questions that compare the past with present conditions, we miss the more nuanced and shifting patterns that made up the variety of women’s lives. Whether rural or urban, rich or poor, free or enslaved, women’s legal and marital status dictated some basic parameters of how they operated within the early American economy. But despite these boundaries, or perhaps because of them, women created new strategies to meet the economic needs of households, families, and themselves. As entrepreneurs they brought in lodgers or operated small businesses that generated extra income. As producers they finagled the materials necessary to create items for home use and to sell at market. As consumers, women, whether free or enslaved, demanded goods from merchants and negotiated prices that fit their budgets. As laborers, these same women translated myriad skills into wages or exchanged labor for goods. In all these capacities, women calculated, accumulated, and survived in the early American economy.