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 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.
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 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.