The Monument to Patriots of African Descent: Black Americans’ Revolutionary Histories

On June 19, 1993, the Monument to Patriots of African Descent was dedicated at Valley Forge National Historical Park in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. It is not only one of the newest Revolutionary War monuments in a National Park, but also the only site in the Northeast that specifically honors African Americans’ contributions to the founding of our nation.

This program examines the process of creating the Monument to Patriots of African Descent, the history of sites that commemorate or exclude Black Americans from public culture, and the National Park Service’s role in foregrounding racially diverse histories of the American Revolution.

The event is moderated by Dr. Emma Silverman (NPS Mellon Humanities Fellow in Monuments and Memory). It features Dr. Paulette Jones and Mrs. Deanna Shelton (Valley Forge Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta, Inc.), Dr. Renée Ater (Public Scholar and Professor Emerita at the University of Maryland), and Ranger Steven Walter (Park Guide, Valley Forge National Historical Park).

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DR. EMMA SILVERMAN: Steve, can you kick everything off by bringing us up to speed on the history as the basis for the discussion of the monument tonight?

In other words, I'm going to ask you to briefly share the history of the encampment at Valley Forge.

Why is it such an important event that there is a National Historical event-- sorry-- a National Historical Park that tells its story?

STEPHEN WALTER: So Valley Forge was one of the many important turning points of the American Revolutionary War. Continental Army marched in here on December 19th, 1777. For reference that's one year almost exactly after that famous crossing of the Delaware, that desperate attempt to save the war effort.

These men marched in here poorly clothed, poorly fed, underpaid, and badly disorganized. During those six months of this encampment, many important reforms were made in the army.

General George Washington along with the Continental Congress overhauled the supply system for the army, hoping to ensure more reliable supply of clothing and food.

One of the first large scale inoculation programs in North America took place here when General Washington ordered that every soldier in this army should be inoculated against smallpox, which was a huge threat in that day to any army. That effort likely saved many, many lives.

Baron Friedrich von Steuben, a Prussian army officer, arrived here in late February, quickly becoming the Inspector General of the Continental Army. In four months, he completely retrained the entire army and established what could be considered the first group of drill instructors for an American army. Using the notes that he took here at Valley Forge, he later wrote the first official manual for army operations of the United States. Parts of that manual still exist in army regulations to this day. Throughout the winter, men all over the country were recruited heavily for the war effort. This was one of several low points throughout the war, and they needed men to fight. With rising numbers, Congress was able to effectively reorganize the army into a more standard sized units. It was kind of a mess when they marched in here in Valley Forge.

For example, I'll talk about the Rhode Island regiments since this monument is located in the area where those men were encamped. The first Rhode Island regiment was consolidated into the second Rhode Island regiment. And meanwhile, back in Rhode Island, they began raising another first Rhode Island regiment to replace the one that had been kind of mashed into second Rhode Island. That regiment would later become quite famous as the Black regiment for the large number of African-American men who made up the forces of that regiment.

They fought valiantly throughout the remainder of the war. Continental Army marched in here in pretty rough shape. But by the time they left, they were by far the most effective fighting force they had been up until this point in the War. 3 years of war, they finally realized they can beat the British. If they had known it would have taken five more years, who knows what they would have done.

But they marched out of Valley Forge just completely transformed. Nine days after leaving the encampment, they stood toe to toe with the best units of the British army and gave as good as they got. This proved to themselves and to the country and probably to the world that this American army really could hold its own against the very powerful British army.

DR. EMMA SILVERMAN: Thank you. Thank you for explaining why Valley Forge is so important. And you told us a bit about the Rhode Island regiment.

So I'd like to invite you to tell us more about the history of people of color at Valley Forge. What do we know about the presence of African-Americans and other people of color at Valley Forge?

And can you describe the recent work that the National Park Service has been doing to illuminate this history?

STEPHEN WALTER: So we know there were at least 700 Patriots of African descent who served at Valley Forge. Unfortunately, records from that time are rare. And when they can be found, they very rarely record demographic information about the individuals. So there were quite likely more than 700.

Despite the first Rhode Island's fame as the black regiment, it was actually unusual in the fact that its companies were segregated between black and white. Throughout the rest of the army though, units were typically integrated throughout the war. This was the last time that would happen until the Korean War 172 years later.

Thinking back through American history, a lot of people are surprised to find out the Continental Army, for the most part, was integrated. In addition to these Black Patriots, there were many soldiers of a multiracial background and 47 warriors of the Oneida Nation who were sent here to help the American cause. Their oral traditions tell us of Polly Cooper who helped bring food to the army and teach the soldiers foraging methods. Their support was a huge deal. They were one of only a few Native American tribes that supported the Americans. Most Native American tribes supported the British because they saw them as a lesser threat.

Although they have long had friendly relations, the Oneida had friendly relations with the colonies. Their support put them at odds with other tribes who had been friendly with them for hundreds of years. And after fighting heroically at the Battle of Baron hill, just very close to here, it was Oneida warriors, unfortunately, had to return to New York to defend their homes.

And US with the National Park Service is doing to illuminate this history-- it's been a big discussion over the past year or so in the National Park Service-- how to increase representation, how to bring these little known stories to the front right alongside the ones that everybody knows.

Interpreters like myself and my colleagues are telling these stories every chance that we get.

We have this monument here that we're rather proud of. And we're just doing everything that we can to make everybody know that they are welcome to visit our parks.

And we're trying to build connections when those connections are there.

DR. EMMA SILVERMAN: Thank you, Steve. It's so great to hear about the work the National Park Service is doing. I think those programs-- people don't always know about them. So I love being able to foreground them.

And another fantastic thing about having Rangers in this program is hearing those sort of firsthand stories about the impact of these sites that can't really be captured in other ways.

So I'm wondering if you could tell us about park visitor's response-- both to viewing the monument and learning this lesser known, to many, history of African-Americans and Native Americans at Valley Forge and in the revolution?

STEPHEN WALTER: Yes, a lot of visitors that I've talked to are surprised that it's there. Many don't know.

I know when I first learned just how important the contributions of African-Americans, seeing as how they were, I was surprised. I remember growing up and reading the history books in grade school, and that's not the army that I was picturing.

And now I'm learning-- well, a couple of years ago when I got here, I learned that's not the truth. And we're trying to bring that out and let people know that this army was remarkably diverse compared to our modern perspective of that army.

I've spoken with a few visitors about the monument. And many people are very impressed that it's here. Actually, one of my favorite memories in this park-- last fall, I was roving around the park, and I decided to just stand next to this monument for a little bit and see if anybody would approach and talk to me, want to talk about the monument.

And as I was standing there, an older white gentleman walked up with his two grandchildren, a young boy and a young girl. And I said, hello, ask me if you have any questions.

He said, no, I'm just bringing my grandchildren here because I want to teach them that everybody's story matters and that there are more stories out there than many people realize.

I thought it was a very powerful thing that he made a trip to the Park specifically to teach his grandchildren this bit of history.

And I mean, I'm not going to lie when he walked away, I kind of had tears in my eyes. I was very impressed with that he went out of his way to teach these stories that many people just never hear.

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9 minutes, 58 seconds

Steven Walter, Park Guide at Valley Forge National Historical Park, tells the story of the encampment at Valley Forge, the First Rhode Island Regiment, and the role of 700 Patriots of African descent.

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DR. EMMA SILVERMAN: The monument to Patriots of African Descent-- it was unveiled in 1993. So it's one of the newest Revolutionary War Monuments in a National Park. So for that reason, this is the only event in the Lives of Monument series where we have this opportunity to hear from the people who actually brought the monument into being. So I'm going to start with a question for you, Paulette. Can you tell us how this monument came to be? In other words, why did members of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc think it was important that a monument exists to tell the history of Patriots of African Descent at Valley Forge?

DR. PAULETTE JONES: The visionary for this project was Dr. Martha Russell, a charter member of Valley Forge Alumni Chapter of Delta. And she is an avid reader and history buff. Martha and I are not only sorority sisters, but we are biological sisters. We were initiated into the sorority at the same time.

So it was not a surprise to me at all when Martha shared that she had read Pennsylvania's Black History by notable historian, Charles L. Blockson. And then she said there was an opportunity for us to partner with Valley Forge National Park. So her love of history paved the way in 1991 as 27 suburban based deltas were coming together to form our new chapter. Martha's vision was shared with our group and history continues to be made.

Following that meeting, we met with then superintendent, Warren Beach. Superintendent Beach was all in. He said the mountain of paperwork necessary for the National Park Service in Washington DC-- don't worry about it, I'll take care of this part. He wanted us to focus on all the other aspects. So Patriots of African Descent became our flagship project. I was the project chair and worked side by side with the chapter's first president, Thelma Williams. She and I spent countless hours in front of community groups, sharing the vision and building community support. Thelma is a powerhouse, and through her leadership and tenacity, we pushed and got the job done.

The making of a monument, which none of us had ever had done before, and we did not know the many challenges to expect. But our focus was not on how to do it but why it needed to be done. It was an essential project. It really needed to be done. And that is what kept us focused. It was our commitment to correct a historical wrong. It's so true that the hands that hold the pen writes history. And there are so many variations of that statement.

But how it impacted the Black Patriots is that their heroic contributions during the American Revolution were often ignored, diminished, or being written out of history. These Patriots were not only being written out of history, in spite of their massive contribution to the growth of this nation, but they were also being dehumanized and classified as less than a person. During our 20th anniversary celebration in 2013, Bill Sumter, the sculptor of the image on the Patriots of African Descent Monument stated, monuments serve a purpose. Honorable deaths are what people look for in war. And that's why monuments are made. Well, many Black Patriots died in their fight for freedom, and their deaths were indeed honorable.

Many painters of African descent were enslaved and fought in exchange for their freedom. Many took the place of their slave masters and were still forced back into slavery. There were a lot of broken promises, there were some kept, more broken than kept. And prominently noted on the back of the monument, it reads, in honor of Patriots of African descent who served, suffered, and sacrificed during the Valley Forge encampment. And then it was followed by a quote from historian Charles L. Blockson, our honorary chair, throughout these historic and hallowed campsite were courageous Black Patriots who participated in our nation's bitter fight for independence.

As we promoted the project, we would always quote, lest we forget their historic quest for freedom, because we must not ever forget and we must always educate, educate, educate. We must teach our children truth. We must reteach to correct the untruth.

Very early in the forming of this nation, a standard was being set to lessen the humanity of all people of color, especially Black people. It is sad and infuriating that we are still fighting that same fight today.

It is, however, a noble and very necessary battle. We must continue at every opportunity to correct historical wrongs. We must, as civil rights activist John Lewis said, get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble. And as we know, there is so much necessary trouble. Visiting the Patriots of African Descent Monument presents an opportunity to initiate truthful conversations of American history.

There are many school field trips to Valley Forge. It is a perfect opportunity for educators to share the contributions of Black Americans and teach them about the many noble acts of these Patriots during the American Revolution. There are many family activities at the park as well. And the Patriots of African Descent Monument creates opportunities for personal family conversations and research.

As an organization, Delta Sigma Theta first official act was to be part of the women's suffrage movement. It was to be a part of correcting a political wrong. Since the inception of Delta in 1913, the organization has been in the forefront of change and social action. So it is such an honor, such a privilege, at the formation of Valley Forge Alumnae that we had the opportunity 28 years ago to have a lifetime impact flagship project-- Patriots of African Descent. It was most eloquently stated by Lillian Benbow, the 15th national president of Delta Sigma Theta, "We come not to break new ground, but to lay claim to old ground which is ours, for which we have been endowed with the genius to make new."

This quote was dated years before the monument was even a concept but fit so perfectly as if it were designed just for our moment. We must educate, educate, educate. We must correct historical wrongs at every opportunity. Lest we forget their historic quest for freedom. Thank you.

DR. EMMA SILVERMAN: Paulette, thank you so much for so powerfully elucidating the importance of the monument and why you all-- as you said, you are to push to get it done. I think that will not be a surprise to anyone who is at the first two events in the series.

We talked about how the Bunker Hill Monument took decades and then the Yorktown Victory Monument over a century to actually get built. So I would love to hear from Deanna-- tell us about the process of bringing this monument into existence in really just a very short time frame.

You all got it done in a handful of years versus decades or a century. And that's a process that involves fundraising, selecting the artist, the development of the design. Deanna, can you please tell us more about that?

DEANNA SHELTON: Sure. It was fortuitous for us that the sorority had started an initiative Project Cherish which was to be a national program for the preservation and beautification of African-American landmarks and historical sites.

Our dream project now also fit within the programming guidelines the sorority sets for its chapters. Finding the funding for such a monumental task-- and the pun is intended-- was daunting. We knew that the resources of our group of 27 would not be enough. Though when we initially started, we had no idea the amount of money we would need. We just knew we wanted something bigger than an ordinary gravestone.

We came up with the idea to design a poster which we could sell to raise money. After interviewing and reviewing the proposed pictures of a number of artists, we decided the Cal Massey of New Jersey would be the artist whose work we would use. Mr. Massey had a national reputation, and his work was on display at Ellis Island where his liberte honored those Black people who migrated to our country from the Caribbean.

His work was also on display at the airport in Atlanta and had appeared in Essence and other popular magazines. We especially liked his interpretation. These are Mr Massey's words-- Greg?

"The rendering is embraced by a caressing arch, symbolic of spirituality. Three reinforcements are symmetrically fastened to the arch representing service, suffering, and sacrifice. A bust of three fully uniformed soldiers personifies dignity. The soldiers are faced in three distinct directions, symbolic of their poignant and peculiar plight-- excuse me. Three men who fought and hope for an honorable existence. Slaves who were granted freedom but later sought acceptance for Satan's slaves whose promise of freedom was abandoned."

"Surmounting the Patriots is a flock of doves in flight which manifests a zealous yearning for freedom. The Laurel wreath below signifies victory and honor. The 17 leaves on each side represent a noble cry for equality." End quote.

Our poster idea had now evolved into the production of a beautiful limited edition print from an artist with a national reputation. Since we wanted something more elegant than a plain gravestone, we talked about having some sort of sculpture or embellishment on the stone.

Thank you, Greg.

Mr. Massey introduced us to Phil Sumter who had done many sculptures featuring Black Buffalo soldiers. Mr. Sumter had worked with a stone company in Vermont. And when he showed us a sample of had in mind, the project became much bigger than even a large gravestone. We were fortunate that the people we chose to help us helped us raise the funds also.

Mr. Massey, Mr. Sumter, and Michael Williams of the Williams Memorial and Marker company each told us that they felt honored to be a part of the project and were willing to step out on faith with us. We paid as we progressed. It was sort of like a lay away.


Much of the publicity we received for the project was because of the stature of the men who were working with us. The project was mentioned in many Philadelphia area media outlets. Channel Six was that the going away party for Mr. Sumter's cast when it was sent to Vermont. They also covered the festivities at the park in June.

Major papers like the Philadelphia Tribune, the Philadelphia New Observer, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the suburban papers from the communities where our members lived ran articles. And these articles generated print sales and contacts. We were also given the opportunity to be guest on radio shows to tout the project.

I have to emphasize that this monument was funded by grassroots efforts. Most of the civic organizations we approached gave us $1,000. Get enough of them. Our biggest donor was a private citizen who heard us on the radio and sent $5,000. Mr. Blockson had a book signing party. Tony Nash, a TV host, invited us to receive the proceeds from a reception she was hosting to mark a milestone show where Mr. Massey signed prints. We then sold sponsorships for having your name included on the plaque affixed to the back of the monument.

These efforts all put us solidly in the game.

We had the funding to make the monument a reality. Our project which started with a dream eventually cost about $100,000.

That's how we got the money.

DR. EMMA SILVERMAN: That is an incredible story. And I saw a question in the chat come up about the print.

You can purchase the prints, and I'll talk more about that at the end of our program. If you're curious about that, amazing print that's behind Paulette and Deanna.

So this is so great. You've given us such a good sense of why you wanted to go through this arduous process of building the monument and also what it took to get the monument up.

I mean, yeah, $1,000 donations-- need a lot of those to equal $100,000. So that's amazing.

My last question is for both of you.

What can you tell us about the life of the monument since it's been built?

So in other words, how have you experience or how have you noticed it impacting visitors to the park and then also the wider community?

DR. PAULETTE JONES: In many aspects, the monument is young. It's just 28 years young. And the world of monuments, that's a baby.

Valley Forge Alumnae has annual commemorations with a wreath laying ceremony every June. For the past 28 years, we felt it was important to come together and honor these Patriots.

Although it is a public event, the attendance is modest. But it is growing year by year. During our milestone year such as the 10th, the 20th, and 25th anniversaries, larger events were planned and subsequently larger crowds were drawn.

For the first time, we will host virtual wreath laying on June 19th of this year. A link will be made available for that event. Our next milestone event will be the 30th anniversary in June 2023. So be on the lookout. It will be a grand event.

The Patriots of African Descent Monument is located on a highly traveled part of the park on route 23, and it does get a lot of exposure. Yet in another realm, many people still are not aware of its existence. It is the only monument that honors Black Patriots on federal ground.

In spite of not having the awareness level that we hope, for some, somehow, hate had reared its ugly head in 1997 and then again in 1998 with hate statements and hate symbols spray painted on the monument. One of the vandals were caught and prosecuted and the other was never found.

The monument has certainly received more positive than negative attention. It is very important that children see where they fit in history in a positive way. Patriots of African Descent helps to fill that void.

For example, through this project, we learned that one of our charter members, Wanda Polk Bankhead, is a direct descendant of a Revolutionary War Patriot. This type of information adds connection. We are hopeful that events such as this will spread the word and Patriots of African Descent Monument at Valley Forge park will be a destination point for schools and for families so that we can continue to educate, educate, educate. Lest we forget their heroic quest for freedom.

Thank you.

DEANNA SHELTON: Most people agree that the monument is an impressive work of art. A Park Ranger told us that initially, there were many close call fender benders with cars slamming on brakes to see the monument when they came over the crest of the road.

Since it sits on a main throughway in the park, many walkers, joggers, and bikers pass by it on a daily basis. I have passed by and seen people taking pictures. Since the dedication, each year, we have sponsored an essay contest for middle school students from our service area.

Many social science teachers have embraced the project. And we have had some very innovative entries. We invite the winners and their parents to an anniversary celebration and wreath laying ceremony in June. And most of the time, the parents are very complimentary and say they will return again.

People are still being awakened to the fact that Blacks served in the Revolutionary War though. Our quest to make visible the invisible heroes has made some strides.

There was the Today Show segment featuring the monument in 1995, and there was even a question on Jeopardy, February 14th, 2014, in the African-American history category.

The chapter has-- excuse me-- the chapter was invited to participate in a program sponsored by the US Postal Service when stamps honoring the Buffalo soldiers were being issued in 1994.

They gave us a cancelation citing our effort, quote, "To continue to reclaim and foster truths regarding Blacks in American history", enquote. So our project has, we hope, made an impact.

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18 minutes, 24 seconds

Dr. Paulette Jones and Mrs. Deanna Shelton describe how the Valley Forge Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta, Inc. designed, fundraised, and constructed the Monument to Patriots of African Descent.

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13 minutes, 54 seconds

Dr. Renée Ater, Public Scholar and Professor Emerita at the University of Maryland, discusses how the Monument to Patriots of African Descent relates to a broader context of African American representation in monuments, especially military monuments.

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31 minutes, 22 seconds

The speakers have a discussion and respond to questions from the audience.

“The Lives of Monuments” was made possible through the National Park Service in part by a grant from the National Park Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. For more about the Mellon Humanities Fellow Program, visit the National Park Service page and the National Park Foundation page.

Valley Forge National Historical Park

Last updated: February 2, 2022