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When we talk about the American Revolution and Revolutionary War, the discussion often involves lofty ideals like liberty, freedom, and justice. The Declaration of Independence even opens with the idea that "all men are created equal." But it turns out, the war wasn't being fought on behalf of "all men." The war was mainly about freedom for white colonists, and liberty, justice, and the pursuit of happiness didn't apply to the Black people living in the British colonies. During the war, Black people took up arms on both sides of the conflict, and today we're going to learn how and why they participated.

Clint's book, How the Word is Passed is available now!

Sources and References

Sylvia R. Frey, Water From the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991).
Woody Holton, Forced Founders: Indians, debtors, slaves, and the making of the American Revolution in Virginia (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1998).
Cassandra Pybus, Epic Journeys of Freedom: Runaway Slaves of the American Revolution and Their Global Quest for Liberty (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006).
Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961).

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Sources and References

-Sylvia R. Frey, Water From the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991).
-Woody Holton, Forced Founders: Indians, debtors, slaves, and the making of the American Revolution in Virginia (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1998).
-Cassandra Pybus, Epic Journeys of Freedom: Runaway Slaves of the American Revolution and Their Global Quest for Liberty (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006).
-Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961).

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Hi, I’m Clint Smith, and this is Crash Course Black American History.

Imagine living in a place where your labor exists primarily for someone else's benefit. Now, imagine living in a country where motions to pass laws that would benefit your greater good largely go ignored, and where you feel like the governing body that creates the laws that shape your life don’t represent you or your best interests.

Imagine being regularly surveilled and watched by people with guns. Imagine being convicted of crimes without a trial by jury. Imagine your seas plundered, your coasts ravaged, your towns burnt down, the lives of your people destroyed, and all that on top of having to pay taxes without having any sort of meaningful representation.

Oh! I'm sorry, did you think I was talking about Black people? Oh no, I was actually going down the list of grievances the American colonists outlined for Great Britain in the Declaration of Independence.

Which is interesting, given what so many of these colonists would do to Black people during and after the revolution. INTRO Now imagine you’re a Black person living in colonial America, and a war for independence, freedom, and "certain unalienable rights" is taking place right in front of you. But the freedom being fought for, is one that would largely only benefit white Americans.

Not you. The American Revolution, hypocritical as it may have seemed to Black people, did provide some opportunities for enslaved people to gain their freedom. Some did so by fighting for and aligning themselves with the Americans, while others fled to fight with the British.

Over 200,000 people served in the American army during the Revolutionary War. Historians have determined that anywhere from 5,000 to 8,000 of these troops were of African descent. Some were forced to take up arms when able bodied men were needed to fight on behalf of the colonists.

Others, willingly did so as a show of goodwill, hoping to convince enslavers that Black people were Americans too, and were thus also worthy of all the rights that these American colonists were fighting for, for themselves. At the same time, there were also a lot of black people who calculated, that they should take their chances fighting for the British Crown, because it was the British who actually seemed more likely to widely enforce emancipation in the event of their victory. It’s estimated some 20,000 Black men would end up fighting for the British Army.

Far more, than the number who fought for the Americans. No matter which side they were fighting for though, there is no question that Black people played a significant role in the war. One of the most important figures in the Revolutionary War was a Black man named Crispus Attucks.

And why was he so famous? Well, it’s said that he was the first person to be killed as part of the revolutionary cause. Man for some reason whether it’s movies in the 90s or 18th century revolutions, Black people always seem to be the first ones to go.

But I digress. So, Crispus Attucks died during the Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770. On a cold March evening, British troops fired into a crowd of angry Americans who had been taunting them.

Five colonists were killed and the Americans were absolutely furious. It amplified the already heated tensions with the British and served as a major catalyst for the Revolution. A sailor and rope maker, Crispus Attucks hailed from Framingham, Massachusetts.

As far as we know he was a runaway. In 1750 someone in Framingham put out an advertisement in search of a 27-year-old, 6'2", short and curly-haired, "mulatto fellow." And though he was called mulatto (a pejorative name that was given to people of mixed white and Black ancestry) Attucks was likely of African and Native American descent. Let's go to the thought bubble.

Crispus was at a local tavern, when an altercation between a few angry colonists and a British officer began escalating nearby. When the town bell rang, Crispus joined the swelling crowd to see what all the commotion was about. At some point, he stepped to the front of the crowd wielding a large wooden stick, joining other armed men ready to defend themselves against the British troops.

Now, there are two versions of what happened next. Version 1: Samuel Adams, leader of the Sons of Liberty (and namesake of the beer brand founded many years later) says Attucks was simply leaning on his stick when he was shot by the British and that he had posed no threat to anyone in those moments before he was killed. Version 2: According to an enslaved man named Andrew who testified as an eye-witness, Crispus threw himself into the mayhem striking at least two soldiers before he was struck down.

And remember an enslaved person’s testimony, has to be understood in the context of the power dynamics at hand. In any case, what seems to have happened is that as the colonists rained fire – well snowballs – on British officers, somehow, whether accidentally or deliberately, a weapon went off. This startled both the crowd and the British soldiers.

Believing that their officer had ordered them to open fire, the rest of the soldiers started shooting at the angry mob of colonists. The cause of Crispus Attucks' death was two musket balls to the chest. Thanks, thought bubble.

John Adams, the future U. S. president, who also served as one of the British soldier's defense attorneys, according to a trial transcript said that Attucks was “a stout mulatto fellow, whose very looks was enough to terrify any person.” John Adams, man. Yikes...

We should note that this is part of a long history of making Black people seem beast-like to justify the violence that was used against them. Little did Adams know, however, Attucks would emerge as one of the most significant figures in the war, ultimately becoming a symbol of Black patriotism and sacrifice. There were several other Black Americans who played a part in other pivotal moments during the war.

For example, Peter Salem, Seasor (sEE-sOR), Pharaoh, Salem Poor, and Barzillai Lew (bAR-zill-EYE. LOO) served on the American side during the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775. The Americans actually lost that battle, but one in which they inflicted significant casualties on the British which gave them the confidence that they indeed could go toe to toe with their royal adversaries.

But as we’ve said, Black people fighting for the American forces, wasn’t always a given. At first, the Commander in Chief of this whole thing, George Washington, didn’t allow Black men to serve in the military; because well--from his perspective-- giving weapons to thousands of enslaved Black men and having them fight alongside the men who enslaved them, didn’t seem like the smartest idea. But, as it became clear that the colonists' reservoir of white manpower was dwindling, he quickly changed his mind.

Unfortunately for Washington, fighting for the British, was a more compelling prospect for the majority of Black people. On November 7, 1775, Royal Governor Lord Dunmore promised freedom to enslaved Black people if they ran away from their Virginia enslavers and fought for the British in the war. Dunmore's Proclamation announced martial law in the colony, declaring: "all indentured servants, Negroes, or others (appertaining to rebels), that are able and willing to bear arms, they joining his Majesty's troops, as soon as may be, for the more speedily reducing this Colony to a proper dignity." The proclamation sparked outrage in the colony and ignited a fierce rebuke from the colonists.

But, even though Dunmore was hoping to receive droves of men anxious to jump into battle, historian Woody Holton tells us that, "half of those [who] joined him and survived the war were women and children." The Ethiopian Regiment, as Lord Dunmore’s military unit would be called, was composed of around 300 Black men who fled their enslavers in Virginia. Unfortunately, this unit went on to lose the only major battle they fought: The Battle of Great Bridge on December 9, 1775. Still, this unit of Black soldiers fighting for the British against the slave-holding colonists had profound symbolic importance.

One significant result, was that it inspired many more enslaved people to run away... The British though, weren’t the only ones to employ this tactic: In 1778, Rhode Island declared that they would allow both free and enslaved Black Americans to participate in the war, promising freedom to enslaved men who would join them. Consisting of only 130 men, this regiment was pretty small, but their service was hailed widely.

You see, for many Black people, particularly those who were enslaved, who you fought for during the Revolution was less about allegiance to any particular side, and more a calculation about your best opportunity for freedom. According to historian Benjamin Quarles, "the Negro's role in the Revolution can be best understood by realizing that his major loyalty was not to a place nor to people, but to a principle." No matter which side they were fighting for, what enslaved people hoped to prove was that they were just as worthy of freedom, as those who were fighting alongside them. And this idea of Black people using military service as a means of legitimating their claim and right to freedom, is something we’ll see come up again and again throughout American history.

In the midst of all of the rhetoric about "liberty and justice for all," what became clear to many is that this revolution was largely intended for /white/ colonists' independence. The emancipation of all enslaved Black people wouldn’t occur for another 80 years. What’s more, losing the war nullified any promises the British had made to many Black people about gaining their freedom.

And many of them faced re-enslavement after the end of the war. The British retreat left black people in an incredibly vulnerable position. Runaways were prevented from gaining passage on British ships and were meant to be returned to the custody of American officials.

There were many, however, that did make it onto British ships, though they weren’t necessarily destined for freedom. Around 15,000 Black loyalists ended up in places like Australia, Sierra Leone, Canada,. England, Jamaica, and the Bahamas.

And despite the promises that had been made, some of these Black passengers were resold into slavery in other British Colonies. Unfortunately, the American Revolution did not result in large-scale freedom for Black people in America as it did for their white counterparts. And only a relative few were granted the freedom they fought for and had been promised.

Without Black people’s contributions on either side, the war would have looked fundamentally different. Black participation in the American Revolution would not be the last time Black men would fight alongside white men in wartime even when they weren’t sure that they would be allowed to reap the benefits of victory. And as I mentioned before, we’ll see that military service and the prospect of freedom for Black people back home has a long complicated relationship throughout American history, and we’ll learn more about that soon.

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