Prior to 1655 there were no legal slaves in the colonies, only indentured servants. All masters were required to free their servants after their time was up. Seven years was the limit that an indentured servant could be held. Upon their release they were granted 50 acres of land. This included any black person purchased from slave traders. Blacks were also granted 50 acres upon their release.
All were indentured servants. During their time as servants, they were fed and housed. Afterwards, they would be given what were known as "freedom dues," which usually included a piece of land and supplies, including a gun. Black-skinned or white-skinned, they became free.
Historically, the English only enslaved non-Christians, and not, in particular, Africans. And the status of slave (Europeans had African slaves prior to the colonization of the Americas) was not one that was life-long. A slave could become free by converting to Christianity. The first Virginia colonists did not even think of themselves as "white" or use that word to describe themselves. They saw themselves as Christians or Englishmen, or in terms of their social class. They were nobility, gentry, artisans, or servants.
One of the few recorded histories of an African in America that comes from court records is that of "Antonio the negro," as he was named in the 1625 Virginia census. He was brought to the colony in 1621 from what is known as Angola in modern day. At this time, English and Colonial law did not define racial slavery; the census calls him not a slave but a "servant." Later, Antonio changed his name to Anthony Johnson, married an African American servant named Mary, and they had four children. Mary and Anthony also became free, and he soon owned land and cattle and even indentured servants of his own. By 1650, Anthony was still one of only 400 Africans in the colony among nearly 19,000 settlers. In Johnson's own county, at least 20 African men and women were free, and 13 owned their own homes.
In 1654, it was time for Anthony to release John Casor, a black indentured servant. Instead Anthony told Casor he was extending his time. Casor left and became employed by the free white man Robert Parker.
Anthony Johnson sued Robert Parker in the Northampton Court in 1654. In 1655, the court ruled that Anthony Johnson could hold John Casor indefinitely. The court gave judicial sanction for blacks to own slave of their own race. This ruling had Casor becoming the first permanent slave and Johnson the first slave owner.
Whites still could not legally hold a black servant as an indefinite slave until 1670. In that year, the colonial assembly passed legislation permitting free whites, blacks, and Indians the right to own blacks as slaves.
By 1699, the number of free blacks prompted fears of a “Negro insurrection.” Virginia Colonial ordered the repatriation of freed blacks back to Africa. Many blacks sold themselves to white masters so they would not have to go to Africa. This was the first effort to gently repatriate free blacks back to Africa. The modern nations of Sierra Leone and Liberia both originated as colonies of repatriated former black slaves.
However, black slave owners continued to thrive in the United States.