In August of 1619, the United States of America endured a change that would affect the country for hundreds of years. This change would lead to the beginning of a revolution, the further civilization of the country, an increase in revenue and 400 years of pain, struggle and an ever-changing form of captivity. This ‘change’ is known only as the arrival of the first “20 and odd” captive Africans making their first encounter with American soil at Point Comfort, now known as Fort Monroe, Virginia.
The “20 and odd” group was stripped away from their families, stolen from their homeland, forced onto ships and into a foreign land where no one spoke their language, knew their customs or even cared about much more than their work ethic. They were brought here for one purpose, to serve their captors, and though it may seem as though they came to this country with nothing, the “20 and odd” eventually led to the beginning of a transformation in North American culture, from “indentured servitude to chattel slavery.”
Contrary to what most believe the “20 and odd” were not brought to North America as slaves but as indentured servants. They actually worked side by side with white servants in the fields, carried weapons and were free. Slavery didn’t happen overnight, it took several years and laws for slavery to actually consume the United States of America. All indentured servants were treated equally regardless of race. Whether they were white, mulatto, indigenous people or African, all were given a house to live in and food to eat and worked under the same conditions. Most could even work up to the point of becoming free from their indentured servant status. When this took place, as it often did, freed servants were given a piece of land, supplies to tend to that land and a gun. This process was often called “freedom duties.”
One example of freedom duties being granted is the story of Anthony Johnson or, as he is recorded in court documents, Antonio the Negro. Antonio was an African indentured servant who was shipped to the English colony in 1921 and years later gained his freedom, changed his name from Antonio to Anthony Johnson, married his sweetheart, an African American servant named Mary, and had four children. The Johnson’s story doesn’t end here because after Mary was granted her freedom the seemingly impossible couple went on to own land, cattle and indentured servants.
The Johnsons were a part of the slim percentage of free Africans who lived in Virginia at the time. They were one of just 20 free African women and men who lived in their county that had a population of over 19,000 settlers. In history there are tons of stories about individuals like the Johnsons of Africans who were brought to the USA with nothing but the clothes on their backs and made a life worth living for themselves. These extraordinary people were forced to open the door to an entirely new level of change that America rushed to prepare for and as a result, more than 12 million Africans endured a cruel and inhumane punishment known as slavery for several centuries but because of this change greater things came to the United States.
Those known as the “20 and odd” brought to this North American continent paved the way for leaders, activists, mothers and trailblazers. Unknowingly, they carried on their backs the start of the Civil War, the marches of the Civil Rights Movement, inventors, doctors, lawyers and even the first black president of the United States of America. This “20 and odd” were forced to America with nothing and in turn they gave the United States everything.
This year, 2019, marks the 400th year of the “20 and odd” gracing American soil and because of them we, African Americans, can be who we are today. It is imperative that we continue to make these few proud by advancing in education, in our careers and in our lives to show to them that their tenure was not in vain but for a purpose.