The first Africans arrived in America in 1619. However, their status relied on their class at first. Essentially, the first Africans were treated the same as lower class whites. This slowly changed over the course of the seventeenth century as the American colonies needed labor. As a result, the first African pioneers to set foot in America were not slaves.
A group of 20 or so Africans arrived aboard a Dutch ship in August 1619. Records do not clearly indicate the passengers’ status. However, slavery had not been introduced into Jamestown yet. Most likely, this first group were indentured servants that arrived to work a set number of years before earning their freedom. Indeed, records indicate they were listed as servants as opposed to slaves. The first recorded slave does not appear until 1640.
The colonists wished to recreate England in the New World. England did not have African slaves running through the streets or working in industry. The first African settlers appear to have been rescued by the Dutch from a Portuguese slave ship. In early America, they were accorded the same rights as whites of the same station. In fact, some early African Americans eventually owned property and slaves.
Over time, the European colonists realized they needed labor for their cash crops. In the beginning, tobacco heralded large profits for some plantation owners. Planters turned to indentured servants to cultivate their crops, but English servants eventually stopped immigrating. Brutal treatment, tropical diseases, short life spans, and an improving English economy eliminated the early labor force. As a result, the planters turned to Africans. White and Native American slaves could escape and blend into the general population. Skin color set Africans apart.
Slavery evolved over the course of the seventeenth century. Colonists slowly revoked the rights of Africans and African Americans in order to subjugate them. In 1640, Virginia sentenced John Punch to a life of servitude for attempting to runaway. Twenty-two years later, the colony codified slavery into law. In 1667, baptism no longer exempted Africans from slavery. By the end of the century, slavery was entrenched in Virginia and many parts of the Old South. In 1619, the Africans had the opportunity to move up the social ladder. By 1700, those opportunities evaporated in the tobacco fields.
English colonists did not originally intend to institute slavery into the New World. They wanted to emulate life in England, but eventually needed workers. Africans fit their needs perfectly. Skin color set them apart from the general populace and immunity to tropical diseases made them the perfect target in English eyes. The first Africans arrived in 1619, but apparently shared the same status as whites of the same class. However, the first recorded American slave appears about 20 years later signalling the drive to full scale racial slavery had begun.