Remembering Crispus Attucks and the forgotten black soldiers of the American Revolution

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 a 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.