The first enslaved people were brought to the Virginia colony in 1619. The population of enslaved people grew quickly in the 1600s. Over time, lawmakers became concerned with reinforcing the idea of difference between the dark-skinned people who were enslaved, and the white-skinned people who were their masters. Much of the legislation targets women, because their ability to have children meant they could affect the status of future generations.
By legislating the outcomes of women’s sexual relationships, the Virginia Assembly hoped to divide the two races for generations to come.
These three laws outline the way the Virginia Grand Assembly tied race to slavery in the 1600s. The 1643 law introduced the idea of legal racial difference by making the labor of all black women, enslaved or free, a taxable commodity, while white wives, daughters, and servants of plantation owners did not count toward a plantation owner’s taxable people. This was inspired by the idea that black women labored in the fields and white women did not. In reality, white women often worked alongside their husbands and enslaved people, because all hands were needed to keep a plantation profitable, and there were many white women working in the fields as indentured servants. But this act made the idea of racial difference law, and that idea would grow over time.
The 1662 law stated that children of enslaved women were automatically born enslaved. This was to clear up the confusion over what to do with the mixed-race children born as the result of sexual relations between a white master and an enslaved woman. This law made it profitable for white men to get their female slaves pregnant. Any children born would make the owner richer. This was also the legal foundation of the infamous “one-drop” rule that any person with African ancestry anywhere in their family tree was automatically a black person, which persisted in parts of the United States well into the twentieth century.
The 1691 law made interracial marriage illegal, and set up severe punishments for white women who gave birth to the children of black men without being married. The Virginia Assembly hoped this would put an end to white women giving birth to free interracial children, while also allowing them to get more years of free labor out of any white woman who broke the law. Interracial marriage remained a crime in Virginia until the Supreme Court decision of Loving v. Virginia in 1967.