INDIVIDUAL STORIES - INDIVIDUAL HEROES
SLAVERY AND THE MAKING OF AMERICA delves beyond the concept of slavery as an institution and into the personal struggles and triumphs of the enslaved themselves. Below are the stories of some of the men and women featured in the series' first episode, The Downward Spiral.
Hour One: The Downward Spiral
Friday, January 11 at 10 p.m.
John Punch was a black indentured servant working on a small farm in Chesapeake Bay, Virginia, in the 1640s. Day after day, Punch toiled in the fields, enduring unimaginable harassment and oppression as he helped to make tobacco the colony's most profitable export. He worked side-by-side with two white indentured servants, a Scotsman named James Gregory and a Dutchman who went only by the first name "Victor." With no hope in sight and facing unbearable work conditions, the three men chose to flee their master. After crossing into Maryland, they were captured and sent before the colony's highest court for sentencing. For the white men, that meant indentured servitude for several additional years. For Punch, a black man who had committed exactly the same crime, the sentence was servitude for life. There was no law that said he had to be treated differently because he was black, but his infinitely harsher sentence was one of the first indications that being white came with privileges and benefits, and that skin color had the power to determine one's status and fate.
Emanuel and Frances Driggus
First appearing in public records in the mid-1640s, Emanuel Driggus was a Virginia slave belonging to Captain Francis Potts. With him were his wife and children, only two of whom were guaranteed freedom after a certain amount of time, according to the terms of their father's enslavement. In 1657, facing financial problems, Potts sold two of the other youngsters, Thomas and Ann. Powerless to fight his master's cruel decision to split up the family, Driggus attained his freedom in 1661 but continued to see to the needs of his enslaved children. Eventually, Thomas married a free black woman; because a child's status depended on its mother's status, his offspring were free.
One of those children, Frances, worked for a local blacksmith named John Brewer. In 1694, she found herself in court, charged by Brewer with the sin of fornication. No partner was named, and the 17-year-old Frances was sentenced to 30 lashes and an additional two years of servitude. Months later, she returned to court, this time charged with having a child out of wedlock. Frances' accusation that Brewer was the child's father threw the court into an uproar, and, after sentencing her to another whipping, the justices passed the case on to a higher court. Furious, Brewer attempted to assign Frances to another man, at which point Frances sued to fight the move. The teenager fought for a year, arguing that Brewer was trying to take away her free status - ultimately, the letter binding her to Brewer was ruled invalid. This remarkable story - of a woman who dared to tell her story in a world where the word of a black woman was generally meaningless next to the word of a white man - captures the essence of the enslaved spirit and the collective refusal to passively accept oppression.