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Jeffrey B. Perry Blog

“No Basis for Claims John Punch was ‘Indentured’ and Two Servants Were ‘White’”

In "Obama's slavery roots on mom's side" the "History News Network" (1 August 2012) repeats inaccuracies from Sheryl Gay Stolberg's (30 July 2012) "New York Times" article "Obama Has Ties to Slavery Not By His Father but His Mother, Research Suggests." HNN and Stolberg write “ In 1640, Mr. [John] Punch then an indentured servant, escaped from Virginia and went to Maryland. He was captured there and, along with two white servants who had also escaped, was put on trial.”

There is no basis for the claims that John Punch was "indentured" and that the other two servants were "white."

Ancestry.com (in the article Stolberg discusses) cites the following paragraph from the Journal of the Executive Council of Colonial Virginia dated 9 July 1640 as “the only one surviving account that certainly pertains to John Punch’s life”:

"Whereas Hugh Gwyn hath by order from this Board brought back from Maryland three servants formerly run away from the said Gwyn, the court doth therefore order that the said three servants shall receive the punishment of whipping and to have thirty stripes apiece one called Victor, a [D]utchman, the other a Scotchman called James Gregory, shall first serve out their times with their master according to their Indentures and one whole year apiece after the time of their service is Expired ... the third being a Negro named John Punch shall serve his said master and his assigns for the time of his natural Life here or elsewhere."

There is no indication in the 1640 document that John Punch was “indentured.” While the document specifically indicates that the other two “servants” James Gregory and Victor did have “Indentures” it does not say this about Punch. There is no documentation that Punch signed an indenture (particularly not for transportation to Virginia) and it is extremely unlikely that he did. What is likely is that he was previously subjected to limited-term chattel bond-servitude (the passage makes reference to John Punch serving “his said master and his assigns”).

Theodore W. Allen in his seminal two-volume study "The Invention of the White Race," in Volume II on "The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America," shows that in Virginia chattelization was imposed on free laborers, tenants, and bond-servants increasingly after 1622, that it was imposed on both European and African descended laborers, that it was a qualitative break from English labor law, and that the chattelization of plantation labor constituted an essential precondition of the emergence of the subsequent lifetime chattel bond-servitude imposed on African-American laborers in continental Anglo-America under the system of racial slavery and racial oppression.

The other two servants captured with John Punch were not “white” and were not described as such. The 1640 record says only they were “Victor, a [D]utchman” and “a Scotchman called James Gregory.” In Volume I of "The Invention of the White Race," subtitled "Racial Oppression and Social Control," Allen emphasizes there were no “white” people in Virginia at that time and he explains that after examination of 885 county-years of pattern-setting Virginia’s colonial records, he found no instance of the official use of the word “white” as a token of social status prior to 1691. This was not merely a matter of semantics; he also found that the “white race” as we know it was not, and could not have been, functioning in early Virginia.

It is important to understand that through much of the seventeenth century there was a commonality of experience between European and African descended laboring people in Virginia who fought together, ran away together, made love together, and, in general, resisted their oppression together. When economic hard times worsened after 1660 there were numerous examples of militant labor solidarity culminating in the later, civil war stages of Bacon’s Rebellion (1676-77) in which European and African descended chattel bond-laborers fought together demanding their freedom from bondage.

Allen insightfully explains how in the wake of Bacon’s Rebellion the “white race” was invented as a ruling class social control formation in response to such labor solidarity; how a system of racial privileges was deliberately instituted as a conscious ruling-class policy in order to define and establish the “white race”; how a system of “racial slavery” was imposed that was also marked by severe racial proscriptions against free people of African descent; and how the consequence was not only ruinous to the interests of the African-American workers and other direct victims of racial oppression, it was also disastrous for “white” workers.

As people organize to protest the growing hard times today it is most important to accurately learn our seventeenth-century history and whose class interests are served by white supremacist appeals.

Jeffrey B. Perry
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Felicia Pride, "Writer, Speaker, Voice of Her Generation," asks "Do You Know Hubert Harrison?"

Felicia Pride comments on "Debates [that] have been circling lately regarding black leadership and public intellectualism" and offers that "with this current evaluation of black public intellectuals and leaders, Harrison's life, which ended in 1927, can offer unique insight."
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Felicia Pride, "The Clashing of Black Public Intellectuals, Nothing New There" from "The Root," June 11, 2009

This Felicia Pride article, subsequently circulated by "An Anxious Black Woman" and Mark Anthony Neal, discusses "Debates . . . circling lately regarding black leadership and public intellectualism . . . Melissa Harris-Lacewell . . . Tavis Smiley . . . [Barack] Obama's treatment of race . . . Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, and Dick Gregory, . . . Martin Luther King . . . William Jelani Cobb . . . [and] a growing interest in Hubert Harrison, a figure not typically studied in school or talked about in contemporary discourse." The article reviews "Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918" and headlines "A New Biography about Hubert Harrison Offers Insight into Black Public Intellectualism in America." Ms. Pride adds "with this current evaluation of black public intellectuals and leaders, Harrison's life, which ended in 1927, can offer unique insight. . . .
By examining the mind, talent, varied interests, achievements, challenges, contradictions, and complexities of a voice that's been overshadowed, 'Hubert Harrison' shines light on a notable figure in American history." Read More 
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Herb Boyd's Review of Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918

Herb Boyd

Readers are encourged to look at Herb Boyd’s "Neworld Review" review of "Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918" (see Reviews). Herb Boyd is the author of "Baldwin's Harlem" and "The Harlem Reader," he is a writer and columnist for the "Amsterdam News," and he is managing editor for "One World Today."
Boyd writes, in part:
“[Hubert] Harrison’s incomparable intellect, uncompromising integrity, and the influence he had on the thinkers of his day is gradually emerging from the shadows of obscurity, thanks largely to the yeoman and independent working class scholarship of Jeffrey B. Perry. . . .
Anyone interested in the history of Harlem will find an inexhaustible supply of information in Perry’s chapter “Focus on Harlem.” But it’s hard to single out any one chapter since Harrison’s life was inseparably attached to Harlem where his forums, his paper The Voice, his charisma and his redoubtable socialism made him one of the most compelling men of his times.
Indeed, during those days when he walked the streets of Harlem, or any other part of the city, he was widely acknowledged for his vast storehouse of facts and information, and now through Perry’s prodigious research Harrison’s brilliance can once more engage a generation eager to find inspiration and renewed political spirit.
As the pundits bandy about the possibility we may be living in a post-racial society given the ascendancy of Barack Obama, Perry’s study of Harrison’s life and the redemption of his legacy is never more pertinent than when he writes: “Hubert Harrison understood white supremacy to be central to capitalist rule in the United States.”
Add prophecy to Harrison’s impressive resume."  Read More 
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