Patriots of Color

 
Drawing of a minuteman of African descent stands ready with musket and equipment.
A patriot of color

NPS Photo





"This Motto may adorn their Tombs,
(Let tyrants come and view)
'We rather seek these silent Rooms
Than live as Slaves to You'

~ Lemuel Haynes, The Battle of Lexington, 1775.

 

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Patriots of Color on April 19, 1775


Between twenty and forty colonists of the approximately 4,000 who fought along the Battle Road on April 19, 1775, were of African descent or Native American. Although excluded from required militia service prior to the war, these individuals of color were the first of many to take up arms between 1775 and 1783. By the end of the conflict, an estimated 5,500 African and Native American men served on the colonial side; Many more served on the side of the British, particularly after the fighting moved south.


During the 17th and 18th centuries slavery and racism were an integral part of Colonial American society, and deeply rooted in Massachusetts. Why then would these men fight for a society that treated them as inferior?

In 1775, a wide spectrum of people engaged in warfare to defend what was most dear to them. Some individuals saw the war as an opportunity to affirm their cultural agency or gain further influence with Anglo-American society. Others considered life, liberty, and property to be the birthright of all British subjects and many were willing to die for those concepts. During this tumultuous period filled with talk of liberty and freedom, many individuals also questioned the practice of human enslavement as highly inconsistent with those ideals. African American Militiaman Lemuel Haynes wrote in 1776,

"...I query, whether Liberty is so contracted a principle as to be Confin'd to any nation under Heaven; nay, I think it not hyperbolical to affirm, that Even an Affrican, has Equally as good a right to his Liberty in common with Englishmen."

Through the diligent work of the community of color, slavery gradually came to an end in Massachusetts after the American Revolution. In many cases, the veterans of color who fought during the war lead the movements for abolition afterward. Unfortunately, the revolution did not provide freedom for all, instead, it was just the beginning of a long struggle. Under the new United States of America, the practice of slavery grew and solidified in the American South. Eighty-six years after the fighting on April 19, 1775, Americans went to war again; This time to address the problem of slavery, left unresolved from the time of the revolution.

Why don't we hear more about this part of the American Revolution?

Unfortunately, systemic racism and historical bias have erased or buried many records of Black and Indigenous people who played a prominent role in the founding of the United States. Throughout the following pages you will find the incredible stories of the individuals who risked everything during their struggle for liberty, equality, and freedom for all.

 

Learn Their Stories!

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    Scholar in the Park Papers, Minute Man NHP
    John Hannigan, 2014

    Paper 1:How many men of color from Massachusetts fought in the American Revolution? How many were free? How many were enslaved?

    Paper 2: Did any men of color from Massachusetts fight with the British? What would enslaved men hope to gain by fighting for the British, a distant imperial power conceived by the revolutionaries to be enslaving all colonists?

    Paper 3:Examine how changing Massachusetts laws concerning the enlistment of men of color in the military affected their opportunities to serve during the Revolution as well as their chances of being emancipated, if enslaved. Were those who were enslaved during their enlistment emancipated because of their military service? If so, was emancipation immediate or at the end of their enlistment? Conversely, did slave owners use their slaves as substitutes for their own military service? Did slave owners enlist their slaves in order to obtain the bounties? Were the recruitment bounties different for men of color than for white men?

    Paper 4: How many men of color served on April 19, and from which towns? Were they slaves or free men?

    Paper 4 Appendix

    Paper 5: What would enslaved men hope to gain by fighting on the side of the revolutionaries for a liberty that was not conceived to include them? What effects did revolutionary service on either side, revolutionary of British, have on the subsequent lives of men of color who were enslaved at the outset of the conflict, and the subsequent lives of their families?

    Bibliography

     

    Further Research:

    Gilbert, Alan. Black Patriots and Loyalists Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

    Hardesty, Jared Ross Unfreedom: Slavery And Dependence In Eighteenth-Century Boston. New York: New York University Press, 2016.

    Horton, James Oliver and Lois E. In Hope of Liberty: Culture, Community and Protest among Northern Free Blacks, 1700-1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

    Horton, James Oliver and Lois E. Slavery and the Making of America. Chapel Hill: North Carolina University Press, 2009.

    Horton, James Oliver and Lois E. (Ed.). Slavery and Public History. The Tough Stuff of American Memory. Chapel Hill: North Carolina University Press, 2006.

    Jasanoff, Maya. Liberty's Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World. New York:Alfred A.Knopf, 2011.

    Lemire, Elise. Black Walden: Slavery and its Aftermath in Concord, Massachusetts. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.

    Melish, Joanne Pope. Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and "Race" in New England, 1780-1860. New York: Cornell University Press, 2000.

    Nash, Gary. The Unknown American Revolution. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.

    Petrulionis, Sandra Harbert. To Set This World Right: The Antislavery Movement in Thoreau's Concord. New York: Cornell University Press, 2006.

    Rees, John U. 'They Were Good Soldiers:' African-Americans Serving in the Continental Army, 1775-1783. Solihull, England: Helion & Company, 2019.

    Simon Schama. Rough Crossings: The Slaves, the British, and the American Revolution. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.

    Quintal, Jr. George. Patriots of Color. African and Native Americans at Battle Road and Bunker Hill. 2005.

     

    Last updated: August 12, 2021

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