14. Black History Month

Its Significance

February is almost here and brings with it the widely observed annual celebration of the achievements of African Americans. Black History Month (also known as African American History Month) reminds us of the significant and often-overlooked role blacks have played in our national saga. Since 1976, every U.S. president has officially designated this month accordingly. In addition to receiving official recognition from governments in the United States and Canada, it has more recently been observed in Ireland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.

Leutze and Liberty

Aficionados of Washington’s legendary Delaware River crossing know the essential role played by Colonel John Glover’s Marblehead Regiment from Massachusetts, whose seafaring men included black soldiers recruited from among Glover’s neighbors. Indeed, Emanuel Leutze’s iconic 1851 painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware (shown above)—while notoriously inaccurate in many respects—is absolutely correct from a metaphorical standpoint in placing a dark-skinned Marbleheader in the same boat as Washington—and next to him, no less. The symbolism inherent in this gesture emphatically conveyed the artist’s belief that the American Revolution represented a harbinger of liberty for ALL people.

They Were There

In her recent work, Standing in Their Own Light: African American Patriots in the American Revolution (University of Oklahoma Press, 2017), historian Judith Van Buskirk has made an important contribution to the Revolutionary War literature with her revealing account of the effort made by African American soldiers in our struggle for independence. Although this story has been chronicled in earlier works, the service and sacrifice of these soldiers is still largely unrecognized among the general public. The exploits of these men are a memorable testament to their bravery and zeal for freedom that sharply contrasts with the founders’ failure to extend their crusade for liberty to the slaves who existed in every North American colony in the 1770s.

African American soldiers could be found in the Continental army throughout the war. In his journal entry of September 2, 1776, Ambrose Serle, secretary to Britain’s Admiral Richard Lord Howe, observed that the rebel combatants facing the Crown’s forces in New York included “Old men of 60, Boys of 14, and Blacks of all ages.” Flash forward  to the climactic siege of Lord Charles Cornwallis’s army at Yorktown, Virginia, on October 14, 1781, and among the Continental soldiers storming the British-held Redoubt 10 were the black soldiers of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment.

Bottom Line

African Americans fought on both sides, but they accounted for about five percent of those serving in the Continental ranks throughout the war and a larger percentage than that among Northern units. Some of them were free men and some sought to escape our most infamous institution by substituting for a slave master who promised to free them in exchange for their military service—a promise not always honored. Indeed, the Continental army should be celebrated as the first integrated national institution in the United States, as much as for any other reason.

Perhaps Henry Wiencek provides the most succinct and cogent explanation for the role played by these soldiers. In his notable work, An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), he observes that the commander-in-chief needed them for one very simple but compelling reason: white enlistment was precarious (p. 215).

It is at least arguable that the contribution of African Americans to what Washington termed the “Glorious Cause” of American independence impacted his thinking about slavery in the years following the Revolution such that he ultimately determined to free his slaves (the only slaveholder among the founding fathers to do so)—albeit by a provision in his will to take effect upon his wife Martha’s death. In other words, the man who can lay greatest claim to being indispensable in the struggle for young America’s right to rule itself understood at some level the extent to which black soldiers mattered in that enterprise.