“The Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine,” Frederick Douglass said in his famous 1852 address “What to the slave is the 4th of July?”
More accurately, the celebration of the Fourth of July, of American freedom in particular, may have then belonged to white Americans but Douglass was mistaken in his assertion that the Fourth of July did not belong to African-Americans. The critical role African-Americans played in establishing the nation is not brought up enough.
There was a time, even during slavery, when it was hard to ignore the fact that Crispus Attucks, a fugitive slave, served as a key catalyst to the American Revolution. When British soldiers fired upon the colonists in 1770, in what is now immortalized as the “Boston Massacre,” Attucks was the first to die.
How ironic that a black man, once enslaved but defying the law that deemed him a slave to take his freedom, would become the martyr for freedom and equality to those who denied him the same dignity?
But it did not begin and end with Attucks. Take a closer look at the American Revolution and it’s extremely hard to ignore African-American contributions to the birth of this nation. Lord Dunmore, the British governor of Virginia, banked on African-Americans to help Britain prevail over the colonists by promising any slave who fought with the British freedom.
A visit to Colonial Williamsburg where such times are consistently played out during its popular re-enactment known as “Revolutionary City,” as well as through other programming, reveals how invested African-Americans were in the Revolutionary War and just how dramatic the decision to side with the Patriots or the Loyalists was for those enslaved. There were some who believed that there was no way that the Patriots could demand their freedom and then continue to hold another race in bondage and sided with the colonists while others saw fighting with the British as their only opportunity for freedom.
In the British “Ethiopian” brigade, about 300 African Americans fought at the Battle of the Great Bridge on December 9, 1775.
The British decision to recruit African-Americans to fight was impactful. In July 1775, George Washington went to great pains to bar African-Americans from fighting in the war but, by December 1775, had to reverse that policy to at least let free blacks serve. Some states like New Hampshire and New York took it a step further by promising freedom to slaves who fought for the Patriots. Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island even had all-black companies. And many served honorably.For example, in Massachusetts, former slave Salem Poor, who had purchased his freedom, is credited for killing the British Lieutenant-Colonel Abercrombie during the critical Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775. Prince Whipple and Oliver Cromwell were with Washington when he famously crossed the Delaware River in 1776.
Even though Southern colonies like Georgia and South Carolina refused to enlist slaves as soldiers regardless of the circumstances, African Americans in the South still fought. Haitians even lent a helping hand. In Savannah, in 1779, over 500 Haitians, known as “Les Chasseurs Volontaires De Saint Domingue,” fought against the British in the bloody Siege of Savannah.
Historians claim that one of the youngest was 12-year-old Henri Christophe, believed to be enslaved by the French at the time, who later played a critical role in establishing Haiti as an independent nation. Today, the Haitian Monument, located in Franklin Square in Savannah where Christophe is depicted as a drummer boy, commemorates their contribution.
An estimated 5,000 African-Americans fought in the American Revolution so Frederick Douglass was not correct when he declared that “The Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine.” In fact, it’s this continued oversight of history that plagues us to this day. When Tea Party supporters and others intimate that African-Americans are somehow less American than others, they are dead wrong. It has been argued time and time again that African-Americans are, in many ways, more patriotic than other Americans.
Despite being held in bondage and suffering Jim Crow and other miscarriages of justices, African-Americans have never given up on the great promise of freedom captured in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence. In fact, the greatness of leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. is that they dared to remind this nation that it was not living up to its potential.
In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, King, whose national monument will be unveiled on August 28, nearly 50 years after the historic 1963 March on Washington, spoke of the “bad check” America had given black Americans while also revealing the hope that African-Americans have generally held on to despite enduring the worst of times. “But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt,” he said. “We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.”
As with every war, including the ones currently being fought, African-Americans have served this nation nobly. So, when it comes to celebrating the Fourth of July, we have just as much right as any other American whose investment in this nation extends back to its very foundation.