With today being the first day of "Black History Month," I am planning to share some snippets of the little known histories of the black Americans without whose contributions America could never have been. I begin with our contribution to America's founding, our participation in the Revolutionary War. I was a grown man before I ever learned that blacks served in the war to win America's independence and it was then that I learned that the first man to die in the war was a black patriot named Crispus Attucks. Although Crispus Attucks was the first man to lay down his life for the cause of a nation yearning to be free, his was not an unusual act, people of color, both free and enslaved, gave their lives for the cause of American freedom.
General George Washington Allows Enlistment of Free Blacks
By Gary Stanovsky
It was an uncomfortable fact for many in the colonies that at the same time they were fighting the British for their liberty and freedom they were depriving slaves of that same opportunity. African-American soldiers, in fact, had participated in major Revolutionary War battles from its very start: around 5% of American forces at the battle of Bunker Hill were black. New England units were completely integrated with soldiers receiving the same pay regardless of color. Still, fears of a rebellion of armed slaves tempered official American recognition of the contribution of blacks.
On January 16, 1776, General George Washington allowed for the first time for free blacks with military experience to enlist in the revolutionary army. A year later, as the American need for manpower increased, Washington dropped the military experience requirement, allowing any free black who so wishes to enlist.
The Continental Congress tried to recruit more African-Americans by offering to purchase them from the Southern slaveholders. Unsurprisingly, few agreed. But enterprising states like Rhode Island made an end run around the slaveholders, announcing any slave who enlisted would immediately be freed. (Rhode Island compensated the slaveholder for the market value of their slave.) The “1st Rhode Island Regiment” was comprised mostly of those freed slaves, becoming the only Continental Army unit to have segregated units for blacks.
Read more about: The Irony of Blacks Fighting for Freedom in America