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Crispus Attucks, a famous African American who fought and died in the Revolutionary War

African Americans' roles in the Revolutionary War



Whose Freedom Are We Talking About Here? African Americans in the Revolutionary War

"Above your shouts and the roar of your cannon, I can hear the crack of the slave whip and the clanking of chains. You were willing to bare your breasts to cannon to evade a tax on tea, but you turn a deaf ear to three million of human beings made in the image of God." These chilling and truthful words were delivered on July 4, 1776 by Frederick Douglass, abolitionist and intellectual. How could American colonists fight for their own freedom from British rule, and yet continue to hold slaves and participate in the slave trade?

Like the roar of a hurricane, Douglass's message was felt by many enslaved African American communities. The war for independence was at hand, and emotions swept through the colonies. Men enlisted in the armed forces, ready to fight. Yet not everyone in the colonies had the same fight on their hands. Enslaved Africans were not as concerned about the freedom of a nation from British authority as they were about the freedom of a people from bondage. Nevertheless, many of these same African Americans chose to fight for freedom from colonial rule in a place where they were not free citizens.

Uniformed African American Revolutionary War Soldier
So what motivated African Americans to "put down their shovels and pick up muskets"? This question was posed to me by Kahlil Shaw, Public Educator from the African Burial Ground in New York City. Could it have been hope? Could it have been faith? Could it have been hope and faith that if they became soldiers, they would be seen as real men, men of honor and integrity?

The answer is complicated. NOT the American colonial authorities, but a British authority named Lord Dunmoe promised freedom to African Americans, issuing a notice that guaranteed freedom and a musket to any "Negro slave" who reached his lines. In effect, he invited enslaved African Americans to defect to Britain. This invitation came at a bad time for the Continental Army, when its successes were slipping. Dunmore was a smart cookie.

Uh oh! George Washington had better get on the ball! Don't worry -- he soon did. Since George, like Dunmoe, was a man of great insight, he saw that his forces' salvation lay in the recruitment of the same people Dunmoe was trying to lure away. Washington went to the Continental Congress to request that African Americans -- but only free African Americans -- be enlisted as soldiers. Before the fat lady sang (that is, before the war was over), Washington's Continental Army was even recruiting slaves to fight against the British!

Brooklyn Bridge
The fights for two different kinds of freedom -- from slavery and from British rule -- did not only take place in the fertile lands of Virginia. The same storm was brewing in New York as well. In 1776, British General William Howe captured Manhattan by driving Washington's Continental Army up to the Harlem River. Howe then armed African soldiers and even hired many runaway enslaved Africans.

Many people still do not know that Africans have lived in New York (then called New Amsterdam) since the 1600s. People typically think of the Northern United States as not being involved in the slave trade trade, and certainly not as home to slaveholders. Let the annoying buzzer sound, because that answer is absolutely WRONG! Housed in New York, there are some of the world's largest banks, The New York Stock Exchange, and the World Trade Center. The truth is that these very institutions, and many others at the heart of American business, were made possible through the wealth produced by enslaved African Americans. New York's famous Wall Street was once where newly-arrived Africans would be stood on auction blocks to be sold as merchandise; at that time, it was called "Meat Street." This area is still home to some of the richest corporations in the world, so not too much has changed.

Rich ponders freedom
Or has it? I posed this question to many New Yorkers of African descent. Richard from Fort Brooklyn New York said that contemporary African Americans have gained some freedom. Yet he also said that people who may well be descendants of the African Americans who fought in the Revolutionary War still do not have the freedom for which the war was fought. He is proud of the African American soldiers' deeds, and feels more can be done to honor them. Luckily, he was able to direct this trekker to the newest monument in New York City, a monument standing near the African Burial Ground, dedicated on the day I visited it. Unluckily, it was dark by the time I got there -- so this is teaser of a picture.

Buell views the statue for the first time
I hope that you will go and witness the Chi Wara for yourself! Chi Wara is the title of the statue, which represents male and female antelope antlers. It is from the Bambara people of Mali, West Africa. This statue is dedicated to all the unnamed enslaved Africans who labored and died in building the country that enslaved them. Buell Thomas, also of Brooklyn, was one of the first people to view this awesome monument. Thomas says that it is appropriate that the monument be placed just in front of and across the street from the New York Supreme Court building. That building represents the ways justice is handed out in America, and the monument near it represents a form of justice.

base of the Chi Wara
The perfect ending to my hectic night in New York arrived when a fight occured in front of that same monument. Young boys were skateboarding on the base of the monument on the day of its dedication. One man could not stand by and watch the ignorant teens disrespect the moment. Unfortuately, the man's first reaction was anger, and he didn't communicate his message effectively. Man and teens began to scream at one another, and nothing was being accomplished. Sound familiar? Well, my spirit couldn't take this arguing over a statue that represents honor and peace. I put on my cape and flew to the rescue. I brought one boy over to the plaque to read the message he was unintentionally disrespecting. In the meantime, I convinced the angry gentlemen that he could have chosen a better way to show his dissatisfaction. Luckily, both liked the way I mediated the argument, and by the end of the night, they were talking like old friends, showing each other the love of which we're all capable. Love -- that is what freedom is. Where love fails, so does freedom.


Please email me at: kevin1@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

MAD - 30,000 shot dead each year - what YOU can do!
Nick - Shave, grease up, and put on a skirt, there's a war on!
Daphne - Letters from the trenches of the revolution
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!
Stephanie - Fearless Females
Rebecca - One man rises above to prove all men ARE created equal
Teddy - Just an old fashioned 'Green Mountain Boys' whupping