Images from history: Crispus Attucks. (Library of Congress)
Memorial Day may be more about barbecues and blowout sales than honoring our deceased veterans these days, but there are many reasons for African-Americans in particular to take pause.
Starting with the Civil War, on through World Wars I and II, moving into the Vietnam War, the Korean War and, most recently, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, African-Americans have had a strong and active military presence dating back to this country’s founding.
In fact, many credit the onset of the American Revolutionary War to the Boston Massacre that occurred on March 5, 1770 when Crispus Attucks, a runaway slave of African and Native American heritage, fell to his death while standing up to the British. Some may even consider him to be the first American, of any color, to fall in defense of what would come to be seen as our American ideals.
Centuries later, much is still unknown about Crispus Attucks, who has widely been credited as the first to die that fateful day in March. Born in either Framingham or Natick in Massachusetts, Attucks worked on a whaling crew that sailed out of Boston Harbor. Thanks to what the Massachusetts colonists believed were unfair taxation policies from the British Parliament, starting with the Stamp Act of 1765 and continuing with the passage of the Townshend Acts in 1767 (which mainly placed import taxes on goods from England), tensions were high in the colony; so much so that the British began to increase their military presence in 1768.
Crispus Attucks helps to spark a revolution
When a young wig maker’s apprentice, Edward Garrick, insisted that the British officer, Captain-Lieutenant John Goldfinch, had not paid a bill to his master despite Goldfinch’s insistence otherwise, the soldier reprimanded Garrick for his lack of respect. Insults were exchanged, a crowd gathered, and a soldier, Private Hugh White, struck Garrick. Coming on the heels of a customs worker killing a young boy named Christopher Seider on February 22, 1770, tempers reached a boiling point and eventually a larger crowd developed.
The dispatching of British soldiers as a result could not force Crispus Attucks and several others to back down, as the crowd demanded justice from White, leading to the Boston Massacre.
Shots were fired into the crowd killing Attucks and two others instantly. Two others would die as well, bringing the death toll to five, but Attucks would long be acknowledged as the first to die.
In an acknowledgement of his bravery, Attucks was buried with the four other men killed, who were white. The subsequent trial of the British soldiers (who were defended by John Adams, who would later become President of the United States), resulted in an acquittal. This sparked widespread outrage and brought the colonists closer to the American Revolution.
Attucks also fuels the anti-slavery movement
In the 1850s, Attucks became an important symbol for abolitionists who heralded him as a hero. Around this time, however, some had begun to question whether Attucks was a hero or villain. Even today, some consider him rogue. Still his contributions cannot be discounted. The fact that Attucks was buried along with white men is significant because that was an uncommon practice of the day. His actions were likely deemed quite heroic by his contemporaries.
But while there may be debate about Attucks for some, there is no denying that African-Americans did make significant contributions during the American Revolution beyond this iconic figure. An estimated 5,000 African-Americans fought against the British in this war. Black soldiers Prince Whipple and Oliver Cromwell were even with George Washington when he crossed the Delaware on Christmas Day in 1776. This, however, was no easy feat.
Blacks break through in America’s first war
With an enslaved population of about 450,000, there was great trepidation in America about arming any of them. Fearing slave revolts, the Continental Congress and George Washington himself worked to keep African-Americans from fighting.
The British strategically used this fear, and Lord Dunmore, the British governor of Virginia, issued a proclamation promising freedom to slaves of rebels that would fight for the British. Subsequently, an “Ethiopian” brigade of about 300 fought at the Battle of Great Bridge in Virginia on December 9, 1775 for the British. Colonel Tye and Boston King are among the best known soldiers who fought for the British, or the Loyalists.
Tye reportedly commanded the Black Brigade in New York and New Jersey, where he is credited with capturing an American captain. Although he would die in war in 1780, his impact was felt. King, who joined the British in Charleston, would fare much better and ended up surviving the war as a free man and relocating to Nova Scotia before helping to found Freetown, Sierra Leone.
On the Patriot side, even before some of the restrictions barring black military participation were eased, an estimated five percent of American soldiers who fought on behalf of the colonists at the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775 were black.
In fact, Salem Poor and Peter Salem distinguished themselves there. Poor, who has appeared on a U.S. postage stamp, was even commended for his many acts of bravery at the time. Salem, who was granted his freedom to fight, also fought in several battles at Saratoga, Concord and Stony Point.
Military service as a path to freedom
Faced with the decimated ranks of white men lost due to disease (largely small pox), General Washington permitted free black men with prior military experience to enlist in January 1776; that condition was extended to all free black men a year later. Even when offered monetary compensation, most of the Southern colonies refused to let blacks participate. But black military serviceman continued to prove critical to victory.
Fighting with the permission of his slave master, James Armistead (later known as James Armistead Lafayette) from New Kent, Virginia served as a double agent and provided the critical information needed to create a blockade at Yorktown, Virginia for the decisive Battle of Yorktown, which resulted in the British surrender on October 19, 1781. For his efforts, he received his freedom and lived out his days as a farmer in Virginia.
Talk of freedom was very much on the minds of those of African descent who joined either cause. As the Patriots argued that the British infringed upon their rights and spoke of themselves as being enslaved, there were high hopes that white colonists would make the correlation to the condition of those of African descent in America, and would compassionately abolish slavery in the new nation. Sadly, they did not; but, the bravery of black men in particular during the American Revolution is credited as a factor in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island making moves to abolish slavery earlier than most states.
Plus, after the American Revolution was won, anti-slavery efforts kicked into high gear in the new America.
Our history as revolutionaries, remembered
While his actions are less lauded today by some, Crispus Attucks remains an important conduit to the events that led to the establishment of the United States of America. In a time when black men were afforded few rights, his bold decision to stand strong against armed British soldiers was essential to moving the Patriots closer to the American Revolution. As war waged on, his spirit multiplied among blacks who, even when enslaved, continued to serve bravely in the American military.
That revolutionary craving for freedom, and the willingness to fight for it, is still burning among African Americans centuries later. From the Civil Rights Movement, to the power of our protests today, fighting for what is right and good is a spark that remains kindled in us from the time the first African-Americans made their military sacrifices for American ideals.
Thus, Memorial Day is just as important to blacks as it is any other group. Perhaps it is even more special, when we remember the often-forgotten sacrifices our ancestors made.