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Five Black Patriots from the American Revolution

During American Revolution thousands of Black Americans joined the war fighting for both sides of the conflict. Unlike their white counterparts, they weren’t just fighting for independence. Most took up arms hoping to be freed from the shackles of slavery. For some slaves-turned-soldiers, the Revolution’s promise of liberty became a reality.

Historians estimate between 5,000 and 8,000 African-descended people participated in the Revolution on the Patriot side, and upward of 20,000 served the crown. Many fought with extraordinary bravery and skill, their exploits lost to our collective memory.

Below are stories of five African American patriots whose crucial contributions to the conflict helped turn the tide.

 

Crispus Attucks, whom many historians credit as the first man to die for the rebellion, became a symbol of Black American patriotism and sacrifice. In 1770 tensions mounted between British and colonial sailors in Massachusetts ports, coming to a head on March 5th, when an angry confrontation turned into a slaughter known as the Boston Massacre.

Attucks, a middle-aged runaway slave of African and native American descent, worked as a sailor and a rope maker. He played an active role in the initial scuffle. Of the five colonists killed, he was said to be the first to fall—making him the first martyr to the American cause. He was taken down by two musket balls to the chest.

 

Salem Poor began life as a Massachusetts slave and ended it as an American hero. Born into bondage in the late 1740s, he purchased his own freedom two decades later for 27 pounds; the equivalent of a few thousand dollars today. Soon after, Poor joined the fight for independence. Enlisting multiple times, he is believed to have fought in the battles of Saratoga and Monmouth. He is most famous, however, for his heroism at the Battle of Bunker Hill. His contributions so impressed fellow soldiers, that after the war ended, 14 of them formally recognized his excellent battle skills with a petition to the General Court of Massachusetts. They called him out as a “brave and gallant soldier,” saying he “behaved like an experienced officer.” Poor is credited in the battle with killing British Lieutenant Colonel James Abercrombie, along with several other enemy soldiers.

 

Phyllis Wheatley fought the revolutionary war with her words.  She was born in West Africa and was brought to North America as a slave. Fortunately for Wheatley her owners educated her and supported her literary pursuits. In 1773, at around age 20, Wheatley became the first African American and third woman to publish a book of poetry in the young nation. Shortly after, her owners freed her.

Influential colonists read Wheatley’s poems and lauded her talent. Her work carried strong messages against slavery and became a rallying cry for Abolitionists. She also advocated for independence, artfully expressing support for George Washington’s Revolutionary War in her poem, “To His Excellency, General Washington.” Washington, who himself had been forced to end his formal education at age 11, appreciated Wheatley’s support and extolled her talent. The commander even invited her to meet him, explaining he would “be happy to see a person so favored by the Muses.”

 

Peter Salem is best known for his crucial contributions at the outset of the Revolution. Born into slavery in Massachusetts in the mid-18th century, Salem joined the Patriots in the earliest battles of the war, participating as a “minute man” at Lexington and Concord. His owners supported this decision and freed him so he could remain enlisted.

Salem earned his place in history for his role in one the most important Revolutionary War fights, the 1775 Battle of Bunker Hill. Although the British defeated the Continental Army in this encounter, it wasn’t a total loss for the Patriots. Their killing of many Redcoats encouraged them to keep up the fight. Many historians credit Salem with killing a key officer of the crown, Major John Pitcairn, just as he was scaling the top of the American stronghold and demanding that the Patriots surrender. Salem’s role is believed to have been memorialized in John Trumbull’s painting The Battle of Bunker’s Hill.

 

James Armistead Lafayette had his life drastically changed during the revolutionary war. He went from being a slave in Virginia to a double agent, passing intel and misinformation between the two warring sides. When Armistead joined the Patriots’ efforts they assigned him to infiltrate the enemy. He pretended to be a runaway slave wanting to serve the crown and was welcomed by the British with open arms. At first they assigned him menial support tasks, but he soon became a more strategic resource due to his vast knowledge of the local terrain. Armistead’s role got more interesting when the British directed him to spy on the Patriots. Since his loyalty remained with the colonists, he claimed to be bringing the British intel about the Continental Army, but he was actually giving incorrect information to foil their plans. In the meantime, he was learning details of the British battle plans, which he brought back to his commander, General Marquis de Lafayette.

This served the Americans well. Because of Armistead’s efforts, they got the insight they needed to successfully execute the decisive Siege of Yorktown, which effectively ended the war. Years later a testimonial from the French General helped secure Armistead’s freedom and as a result the former slave changed his surname to Lafayette.

These five patriots were instrumental to the cause of American Freedom.


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