After Long Omission, National Parks To Honor Minorities In Revolution
Information About Blacks, Others Will Be Included In National Park Exhibits
By Michael Kilian
Chicago Tribune Staff Writer
BALTIMORE — The National Park Service has launched a pioneering initiative to teach Americans about the long ignored but major role blacks and other minorities played in the Revolutionary War.
Under the effort, outlined at a conference of agency leaders and historians here last week, every Revolutionary War historical site in the park system is eventually to include in its displays and programs information about the participation of minorities in the country’s struggle for independence from the British.
Park Service exhibits, historical markers and other educational material–in large part produced 30 or 40 years ago–say little about the contributions of blacks, Native Americans and other ordinary people in this important period of U.S. national history, said Marie Rust, the agency’s northeast regional director.
For example, visitors to Valley Forge, Pa., and other historic sites are probably unaware that at one point about one-quarter of George Washington’s Continental Army was black–though more African-Americans fought on the British side because the king offered them their freedom.
Free blacks were among the first to be called up when Virginia instituted a draft in 1777. Later, black slaves were sent into the military as substitutes for whites who had been called up.
According to University of Richmond historian Woody Holton, the keynote speaker at the conference, some 100,000 blacks escaped slavery during the war–many of them settling as British subjects in Nova Scotia.
The Revolutionary War initiative is being made in response to a recent government survey which found that 65 percent of blacks in America have no interest in Park Service historical sites because they feel the sites are not relevant to African-American life. Only 14 percent of blacks surveyed said they had visited any kind of national park in the last two years, while 35 percent of whites said they had done so.
“Our national [Revolutionary War] historical parks are in a sad state,” Rust said. “All we have is a bunch of [white] soldiers. There’s little or nothing about minorities who were involved in the struggle–or about the experiences of ordinary people.”
The Park Service action follows an effort begun last year at the urging of Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) to make the slavery issue a major component of teaching and interpretation at all Civil War historical sites in the system.
That move caused controversy in the South, where many claim the war was fought over state’s rights and not slavery, though the election of President Abraham Lincoln, an opponent of slavery, precipitated Southern secession.
Russell Smith, director of historical programs for the agency’s northeast region, said the initiative will attack the textbook stereotype which depicts the Revolutionary War as a conflict waged by white male patriots.
“Rhode Island [and Connecticut] sent an entire regiment of black troops to the war,” he said. “There are many untold stories we want to bring to the attention of park visitors. We want to show what the Revolution was like for women and children.”
Blacks were involved in the Revolution from beginning to end. Most Americans are familiar with the role played by martyred African-American Crispus Attucks as a leader of the mob fired upon in the Boston Massacre.
But 10 blacks also took part in the early fighting at Lexington and Concord. Another little-known African-American from Massachusetts named Salem Poor performed so well in the Battle of Bunker Hill that 14 white officers petitioned the state legislature to have him promoted, noting he “behaved like an experienced officer, as well as an excellent soldier. … A reward [is] due to so great and distinguished a character.”
According to Hope College historian Robert Selig, the Continental Army in the Revolution achieved a degree of integration not seen again until President Harry Truman ordered the integration of the armed services in the 1940s.
Of the 12,000 men and women who suffered at Valley Forge through the winter of 1777-78 with George Washington, 755 of the soldiers were black.
The American victory at Yorktown in 1781 was in part due to the front-line fighting of the all-black Rhode Island Regiment, which was described by a German officer serving with the Continentals as “the most neatly dressed, the best under arms and the most precise in its maneuvers.”
The Marquis de Lafayette’s best spy at Yorktown was James Armistead, a Virginia slave who infiltrated British commander Lord Cornwallis’ camp as a servant.
According to Holton, Washington at first opposed the use of black soldiers and ordered them out of the service when he took command of American forces pitted against the British in Boston.
November 23, 2000