In 1622, a boat docked in what would become Virginia. On board was a woman known only as “Juana, a Negro.” The plantation owner who bought her raised tobacco, and Juana worked hard among the other slaves in the fields. She was, however, the only woman on the plantation. Among the slaves was a man known as Antonio. He had come to the New World the year before Juana and was one of only five people to survive the Good Friday Massacre of 1622. He and Juana fell in love and were allowed to marry.
They both worked hard and as a reward were allowed to farm some land as their own. Eventually, they bought their freedom with the proceeds they made from their small farm. They changed their names to Anthony and Mary and chose Johnson as their last name, becoming the first free blacks in what would become the United States with the right to choose a surname.
By the mid-1600s, they had established a family of four children. They owned 250 acres and raised cattle and hogs. They even had two servants of their own.
In 1653, a terrible fire almost destroyed them. Their white neighbors helped them get back on their feet. Tony and Mary petitioned the courts to grant Mary and her two daughters tax-free status for life, a privilege usually reserved for white women.
Life was not always good, however, and they suffered harassment from some of their neighbors. Eventually, they moved to the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where they leased 300 acres. Tony Johnson died five years later, and Mary re-negotiated the lease for 99 years. She would live only 10 more years, but several times during those years, she appeared in court to defend her rights.