Wm. C. Nell's
"The Colored Patriots
of the Revolution"
in the American
Black Heritage Trail
Is "Equality" Really About Everyone?
As I walk the Black Heritage Trail through Boston's Beacon Hill area, a famous quote enters my head. "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal." YES! A fantastic message, isn't it? This idea, penned into the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson and our "founding fathers," rings with justice and liberty. The words cry out against one man's domination by another, against unfair government that does not represent the people, against advantages of the wealthy over the poor. What a truly fabulous idea... but what a terribly disappointing reality. I am learning about the history of blacks in Revolutionary America. Their stories of endless struggle are told through the brick houses and bronze plaques standing before me. These people were not treated as "equals," as the Declaration claims. At each stop on the Heritage Trail, I tell myself that our "fathers" had the right words, just not the right deeds.
It turns out that "all" of the "men" that Jefferson was talking about really wasn't "all," at all. In fact, Jefferson's truth didn't include most of the people that were living in the American colonies at the time. All sorts of humans were considered to be property then, which kept these lower classes from having equal rights with the white, landowning men in power. Women, indentured servants, native Americans, and blacks (enslaved AND free) were not granted equal rights before, during, or well after the American Revolution. This inequality certainly presents a problem to us today, as we look back on the war based on "liberation" from the colonial enslavement under an unfair British government. How could men who were so passionate about their freedom, justify withholding that very freedom from so many other groups of people? When you consider the mindset 250 years ago, you realize that most white males simply didn't think about that.
Links to Other Dispatches
Fortunately though, William Nell did think about it and did what he could to change it. At the African Meeting House on the Black Heritage Trail, I learned that William Nell was born a free black in Boston, Massachusetts. However, just because he was free didn't mean that he was given the same rights as free white men in the city. When William won a prestigious academic award as a young man at school, he was not invited or allowed to attend the awards ceremony at Faneiul Hall to receive his certificate. That ceremony was reserved for the white students only. The only way he was able to get in, was to dress up as a waiter, and serve dinner to those at the banquet who should have been applauding him! This stinging inequality motivated Nell's life work. Although he studied to become a lawyer, he would not apply to the bar because he would not "take an oath to a constitution that did not recognize the rights of slaves." He would become a constant voice in the movement to end school segregation. He worked for "the day when color of skin would be no barrier to equal school rights." His efforts were rewarded in 1855 when black children in Massachusetts were finally allowed to attend the public schools closest to their homes, not forced to a "black school," perhaps blocks away.
Nell is best remembered, though, for not letting other blacks be forgotten. He knew that black colonists and slaves had played huge roles in securing American independence from Britain during the Revolutionary War. Unfortunately, just as his scholastic achievement had gone unrecognized because of the color of his skin, so too did the wartime achievements of blacks in America go "overlooked" by historians after the muskets ceased fire. Nell felt that their efforts should be memorialized alongside the white soldiers who were celebrated as heroes in text books, statues, and speeches. Because other historians of the time weren't interested, in 1850, he wrote a book documenting his race's contribution called "The Colored Patriots of the Revolution." It was Nell's attempt at rescuing the heroic stories of African-Americans "from oblivion."
Five thousand black slaves and freed men voluntarily fought and died for America to win its independence from England. This number is amazing, especially when you realize that these men were fighting for a land "which did not acknowledge them as citizens and equals." Harriet Beecher Stowe, an abolitionist author, introduced Nell's book with her admiration of the black soldiers:
It was not for their own land they fought, nor even for a land which had adopted them, but for a land which had enslaved them, and whose laws, even in freedom, oftener oppressed than protected. Bravery, under such circumstances, has a peculiar beauty and merit.
The bravery of these soldiers would be seen throughout the battles of the Revolutionary War. Although the colonists were hesitant to give the black soldiers guns for fear of a revolt from them, blacks served as able soldiers, sailors, laborers, waiters, cooks and drummers. From the very first casualty (Crispus Attucks at the Boston Massacre) to the proud parader of 700 tied-up British prisoners of war through Vermont (known only as Mrs. Robinson's Negro), black Americans honored the Continental army with loyalty and enthusiasm. Another stop on the Black Heritage Tour took me by Colonel George Middleton's house. Middleton was the only black commissioned officer in the Continental army, leading an all-black company referred to as the "Bucks of America," throughout the Revolution.
Although not covered in Nell's book, there was another option for black slaves during the American Revolution: they could fight for the other side. By 1779 Lord Dunmore's promise of freedom to any slave that fought for the British was extended to all of the colonies. With this declaration, the British were able to mobilize thousands of able soldiers from America itself, soldiers who were fighting for their own freedom from a very literal bondage! Since the British lost the war however, many of these blacks were reenslaved in the United States, or were granted freedom in other British colonies, away from the U.S.
Loyalist or patriot, enslaved or free, it is important for us to acknowledge and remember the integral part African Americans played in the development of our nation. For just as the Declaration of Independence left out minority groups when it decreed that "all men are created equal," these groups are often still left out of today's study of the past. Although William Nell recorded this important Revolutionary history 250 years ago for us to study, it is rare that his information reaches us in our modern text books. I am so glad that The Black Heritage Trail in Boston, and others like it around the country, have been created to teach us this overlooked information, and to tell William Nell's story right.
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Kevin - Slaves fighting for American freedom? What's up with that?
Teddy - Blowing the British confidence to smithereens
Nick - The real revolutionaries at the battle of Yorktown
Stephanie - War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing! Huh!
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Shave, grease up, and put on a skirt, there's a war on!