Weaving racial hierarchy into legal structure

Maryland colonists enslaved Africans as early as 1640, but legislators did not begin to embed slavery into the colony’s legal framework until 1664. Four elements converged to launch Maryland’s quest to weave racial hierarchy into its legal structure.

First, the African share of the total Maryland population increased dramatically. In 1640 there were only 20 people of African descent in the colony with 600 Europeans. By 1660 there were 760 people of African descent in a population of 8,500 Europenas. White dominance was facing a demographic challenge. 

Second, by the 1660s, Maryland was solidly a tobacco territory. The planter class needed more free labor to meet increased demand.

Third, the newly established Royal African Company offered the promise of increased access to enslaved labor.

And fourth, with more Africans in the colony, mixed-race children were causing a conundrum within the implied racial hierarchy – particularly the baptized children of European women and African men. Some six hundred mixed-race children were born in Maryland and Delaware in the colonial era. All of the free Black families descended from White women and their mixed-race descendants. 

From “Fortune: How Race Broke My Family and the World–and How to Repair It All” by Lisa Sharon Harper