The Beginnings Of Systemic Racism Began In Virginia

In our series on post-establishment Jamestown, we discussed many of the ongoing conflicts between Native Americans and Jamestown colonists, and then those growing to become even larger and bloodier conflicts between a number of Native American tribes (most of which were wiped out, pushed off their lands, or assimilated) and Virginia colonists from other established settlements, including Jamestown. 

We also discussed the arrival of the first African slaves to the new world. Africans would continue to arrive by the boatload; some slaves, some free men and women. You either probably already know this, or at the very least it comes as no surprise — after all, the slave trade started somewhere. But what you might not know is that this was a historical seed that, once planted, would mature into a fairly rotten plant we call “systemic racism today.”

To many American citizens even today, the phrase doesn’t mean much. It’s just something that social justice warriors and bleeding heart liberals like to say to prove a point — right? But you would be wrong. 

It all started when a man named Nathaniel Bacon led a group of frontiersmen against the Virginian Colonial Governor William Berkeley. These frontiersmen were from all walks of life. Some were indentured servants, some were African slaves, some were Native Americans, some were English, and others were from other European countries. “Bacon’s Rebellion,” as it would come to be called, resulted in Jamestown being completely burned to the ground. Berkeley fled.

When Jamestown was leveled, the town couldn’t exactly go about filing bankruptcy. What they could do, though, was raise a force to put down the rebellion — which was ongoing for years and years. Bacon and his raised army (of thousands) were initially stopped when armed merchant ships offered Berkeley help. This force held out long enough for colonial government reinforcements to swoop in. Bacon himself died of dysentery before his rebellion ended — and likely it was due to his death that many of his followers left the cause. 

It was due to Bacon’s Rebellion that the English Crown assumed even more direct control over the Virginia colony. According to historical documents, Berkeley was summoned back to England because: “The fear of civil war among whites frightened Virginia’s ruling elite, who took steps to consolidate power and improve their image: for example, restoration of property qualifications for voting, reducing taxes, and adoption of a more aggressive Indian policy.”

Many historians have come to believe that the Crown’s (and the colonial government of Virginia’s) response was designed to drive a wedge between the European settlers, indentured servants, and African slaves. What was the point? With racial lines drawn between these groups, the original settlers would be able to better manipulate and control the poorer settlers who came later. This method was used to decrease the chances of, or opportunity for, another rebellion in the subsequent decades.

It worked for nearly one hundred years — when the American Revolution was born. Thomas Jefferson believed that the revolution followed in Bacon’s footsteps.