How much did you learn in school about the part that African-Americans played in helping the colonies win independence from England?
My education included American history, both in elementary school and two more years in high school. I do remember hearing the name Crispus Attucks, the first man killed in the Boston Massacre in 1770, which historians consider the beginning of the War for Independence.
Crispus Attucks was born c1723 in Framingham, Middlesex, Massachusetts. Whether he was a runaway enslaved man (Deacon William Brown offered a reward for the return of a runaway named Crispus in 1750) or a free person of color is uncertain. He is described as a man of mixed racial heritage – being both Native American and African.
Regardless of the uncertainties about his life, Crispus Attucks was a hero who gave his life for the cause of freedom.
There are many other untold stories of war service by persons of color that have been documented in court records and pension applications AND many of those records are accessible today online. For those that haven’t been digitized, there are more and more resources to locate them being available.
Documenting an ancestor’s contribution to the war cause isn’t always easy, regardless of the person’s race. There are many instances of men with the same name, burned counties where early records are lost, ancestors who either didn’t live long enough or never applied for a pension or widows who did apply, but couldn’t provide proof of their spouses’ service.
However, documentation certainly isn’t impossible either, particularly with some modern scholarly help. In fact, it is estimated that 20,000 escaped enslaved people headed for the British lines, as they saw a better chance for future freedom with them, but a further 9,000 men of color took up the Patriot cause.
Where can records be found?
1. They Were Good Soldiers: African Americans Serving in the Continental Army, 1775-1783. Scroll down and click on the link the NSADR’s YouTube channel to view this talk.
2. NSDAR has published several volumes of Forgotten Patriots: African American and American Indian Patriots in the Revolutionary War. There is a free PDF research guide available.
3. I have reviewed several of Paul Heinegg’s books in the past, including last month’s List of Free African Americans in the American Revolution. If your ancestors lived in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland or Delaware, you’ll want to consult this book, which is packed full of abstracts citing the service of hundreds of African Americans during the war.
4. Africans in America – links to several articles and lists
5. African Americans and the Revolution on NCPedia
6. The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution by William Cooper Nell
7. Standing in Their Own Light: African American Patriots in the American Revolution (Volume 59) (Campaigns and Commanders Series) by Judith L. Van Buskirk
8. African Americans in the Revolutionary War, Oxford African American Studies Center
To learn more, in general, about wartime service of people of color:
2. The American Battlefield Trust
3. Mount Vernon
4. Patriots of Color at Valley Forge
5. The American Revolution and the Hope of Black People
For those who want to prove descent from a person of color who gave service during the American Revolution, as always, begin with yourself and document each previous generation.
Don’t forget to contact local libraries, historical societies and genealogical societies in your location of interest, as they might have exactly the piece of information you are seeking.