A noble story...
There were about 500,000 African Americans in America when the Revolutionary War began -- about 20 percent of the population. Most were held in servitude against their will. Between 1775 and 1783, an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 enslaved and free blacks voluntarily fought in the army, navy and militia. They served side-by-side with whites in all of the major baffles, from Lexington and Concord to Yorktown.
Initially, blacks were barred from service for fear they might be untrustworthy. Free blacks of Boston, who were already serving, protested. And the order partially was reversed. However, hard-pressed to fill quotas, recruiters continued to muster in African Americans who sought any means to escape slavery.
By 1778, as the war effort sagged, African Americans were welcomed, and efforts were initiated to raise all-black regiments. James Madison wrote, "would it not be as well to liberate and make soldiers at once of the blacks themselves. It would certainly be more consonant with the principles of liberty, which ought never to be lost sight of in a contest for liberty."
Heroes from every state...
African American soldiers hailed from all the original states, but a majority was from the North. Spanish Louisiana under Bernardo de Galvez enlisted hundreds locally and from foreign sources to support the Americans. Most served in integrated units, although Rhode Island and Massachusetts boasted notable all-black regiments.
Many blacks served as substitutes for their masters, fought alongside them or ran away and enlisted -- sometimes under assumed names to hide their identity.
There were many heroes. Salem Poor was commended by the Massachusetts legislature for bravery at Bunker Hill. Austin Dabney of Georgia was awarded 112 acres in recognition of "bravery and fortitude" in several engagements.
Edward Hector was given $50 by the Pennsylvania legislature 50 years after the war for protecting an ammunition wagon while other Americans retreated. James Armistead was commended by Lafayette for his industriousness as a spy.
All suffered the horrors of war. Zechery Prince received his freedom posthumously. Gad Asher was blinded. Thomas Lively lost his right eye at Monmouth. Richard Primes was wounded in the head at Camden. Cuff Slade's feet were frozen. Robert Green was wounded in the face. George Dias was taken prisoner at Elizabethtown and escaped.
Francis Freeman, Cato Howe, Titus Kent, Pomp Liberty and others served the entire duration of the war. Two blacks, one of whom could have been Oliver Cromwell, were in the boat with Washington when he crossed the Delaware. Some black soldiers had been carried on slave ships from Africa, men like Gad Asher, Richard Cozens and Caesar Clark.
During the war, African Americans used whatever means open to secure freedom. Jefferson estimated that during 1778 alone more than 30,000 Virginia slaves ran away. South Carolina lost at least 25,000 during the war.
A petition submitted by a group of Connecticut slaves in 1779 told the legislature that the petitioners "groaned" under their own burdens, but they contemplated with horror "the miserable Condition of our Children, who are training up, and kept in Preparation, for a like State of Bondage and Servitude."
Elizabeth Freeman's lawsuit for freedom in 1781 sounded the death knell for slavery in Massachusetts.
These forgotten patriots left a legacy. They organized churches and self-help groups that would light the way to liberty for future generations. They formed family units, whose immediate offspring served America in other wars, including the Civil War.
Prince Hall founded the black masons, which bears his name today. Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist and Episcopal Church, bought his freedom in 1783 with wages earned from driving a salt wagon for the army.
James Mars, the son of Revolutionary war soldier Jupiter Mars, wrote an autobiography about his life in slavery, "because at the time of the civil war few knew that slavery ever lived in Connecticut."
While many generations would have to wait to rejoice in the freedom that very few African Americans would achieve during the Revolution, a deep channel had been cut into America's consciousness through which a mighty river would rage and eventually engulf slavery and its evils.
The free African American population of Boston, New York and Philadelphia rose from 4,000 to over 22,000 by the turn of the 19th century. Slavery was abolished in much of the North by 1785. These patriots laid the foundation for the modern Civil Rights Movement.