Too often, histrians and the general public overlook the role and contributions of African Americans during the American War of Independence.  With a focus on founding politicians and generals, many contributions by other leaders are often overlooked, especially African American leaders.  At  the outset of the war, free and enslaved Blacks represented at least 20 percent of the Colonial population.  As with all residents, Blacks were forced to take sides with thousands actively fighting on each side.

Recently, there has been widespread publicity on the  additional innovative scholarship on the Boston Massacre running up to its 250 anniversary in 2020.  Widely regarded as the first skirmish of the Revolution, special prominence is given to Crispus Attucks who became one of the first Americans to die in the Boston Massacre. Of Wampanoag and African descent, Attucks’s legacy has been defined and redefined to fit various political views and current events of the day.  However notable his courage and sacrifice, there is considerably more to the African American participation in the Revolution than this initial skirmish.  Many impactful, courageous and influential African Americans participated in Revolutionary battles which generally is not recognized in most histories of the period.

Exhibits in the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAANC) in Washington, DC go along way to recifying this ommission. The Revolutionary War exhibits are located on the C3 level, which is the lowest level in the museum.   Here are highlights from the NMAAHC Revolutionary War exhibits.

For more reading on the African American Revolutionary Era participation and contributions, see a bibliography of scholarly works on African Americans and the American Revolution.

African Americans played a large role in the American Revolution. Many enslaved peoples saw the war as an opportunity to gain freedom either by fighting for the British who promised freedom or for the Rebels who sometimes promised freedom.  Many African Americans fought as free men and women who were ideologically committed to either the rebel or the loyalist side.
At various times, upwards of 10% of the Continental Army consisted of African Americans.  Both the British and the Rebels organized all Black infantry units.  The British highly encouraged enslaved Blacks to enter the British ranks and but relegated the freed Blacks to work mainly in personal service, logistics and manual labor roles.


An all-Black rebel unit fought under the Bucks of America banner featuring 13 stars for the 13 colonies and a buck, believed to represent pride and independence.  A Massachusetts militia unit, the Bucks of America provided security in and around Boston during the war. After the war, John Hancock presented this flag to surviving members of this unit to commemorate their service and contributions.

African American infantry Units fighting on the Rebel side

Creation of all-Black Rebel military units was highly controversial during the war.  At various times, military leaders such as Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene and Lt. Col. John Laurens advocated creating all-Black units.  However, prejudice and economic considerations prevented the creation but all of two units.

In addition to the Bucks of American, Rhode Island enlisted an all-Black regiment which performed among the highest levels of any Rebel unit during the war.

Impact of African Americans in key Revolutionary War battles

African Americas participated in all major battles of the Revolution starting with the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord.  The museum does an excellent job of highlighting their contributions which are often not reported in histories of the period.

Not only a hero in the Great Bridge battle, Billy Flora fought in many battles including Brandywine, Germantown, Monmouth, Charleston and Yorktown.  On the other side, Lord Dunmore organized a unit of freed Blacks into a 500 solidier fighting unit called the Ethiopian Regiment.  While the unit had some initial success, the British disbanded the force in 1776.  Many Blacks served in loyalist units fighting for the British throughout the Amerian War of Independence.  After the Treaty of Paris ending the Revolution, the British transported these loyal subjects to Nova Scotia and other parts of its Empire.


In addition to witnessing the defeat of British General John Burgoyne in 1777 at Saratoga, A free, black, Barzillai Lew was one of the many African Americans who fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill.


“The enemy shall not have my team; I will save my horses and myself!” – Hero Ned Hector in the heat of the action at Brandywine when the American lines crumbled.


A contemporary marker commemorates Essius Bowman’s bravery during the Battle of Kings Mountain.


Many African American contributions are unsung with names and service records lost to history,  the National Park Service has documented at least 15 Blacks who fought at the Battle of Cowpens.  However, the name of the African American who saved Col. William Washington’s life is not known today.


Turning the tables on turncoat British General Benedict Arnold, Armistead spied for the Rebels providing valuable intelligence during the initial stages of the Yorktown Campaign.  Armistead formed a strong relationship with Marquis de Lafayette who embraced him during a 1824 visit to the United States.

Non-combat contributions

Not all African-American contributions were on the battlefield.  A former slave, Phillis Wheatley achieved fame as an acomplished poet and observer of the Revolutonary Era.  A Bostonian, Weatley garnered the attention of George Washington and many other Revolutionary leaders.


Wheatley’s poetry book remains in print today.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture is one of the best of the Smithsonian institutions and the exhibits on the American Revolution are no exception.  While advance reservations are highly recommended, I recommend a visit to better understand our nation’s founding and the role that slavery and African American played in its formation and history.