As the nation celebrates its freedom on the Fourth of July, we look back at black soldiers who fought on both sides in the Revolutionary War.
The British promised slaves freedom if they joined their side, while the Continental Army had no such policy. Still, many slaves fought on George Washington’s side, probably hoping for their freedom. Historians and descendants of enslaved people say they played a major role in the war.
There was James Robinson, who was born into slavery on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and fought not only in the Revolutionary War, but the War of 1812. He was eventually freed, became a Methodist minister and settled in Detroit, where he died at the age of 115.
Robinson was recently honored with military ceremonies at his gravesite in Detroit’s Elmwood Cemetery.
Details of Robinson’s life are sketchy. A recent Baltimore Sun story quotes Owen Lourie, a historian with the Maryland State Archives, saying he could find no records of Robinson’s service but that lack of documentation was normal back then and that his story is plausible.
The late Professor James Horton, of George Washington University in Washington, said in a 2009 interview with Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History that the rhetoric of the Revolution was “making it more difficult” for northern states to justify slavery, and that some abolished slavery at that time.
But at the same time the British were “offering freedom to slaves” who would come to their lines and support their cause.
“And they did by the tens of thousands,” he said.
Another black Revolutionary War soldier was Ishmael Titus. His descendant, dance instructor Deidre Lovell of Brooklyn, New York, says one thing her ancestor’s story has shown her is that life in the colonies in the 1700’s was a lot more diverse than we might think.
“I would imagine America looks very much then like it does now,” she said. “Because the laws were not in place to restrict people’s upward mobility or their lives based on laws of slavery or immigration or whatever it was that maintained a separation.”
A monument in Charlotte, North Carolina, honors Titus and the other African Americans who served in the Revolution.
From a North Carolina plaque honoring Ishmael Titus:
AFRICAN-AMERICAN CONTRIBUTIONS DURING THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION
AT LEAST 5,000 AFRICAN-AMERICANS, / BOTH FREE AND ENSLAVED, SERVED IN / THE CONTINENTAL ARMY, STATE TROOPS, / NAVIES, AND MILITIAS. A SUBSTANTIAL / NUMBER OF THESE AFRICAN-AMERICAN /PATRIOTS CAME FROM NORTH CAROLINA, / SOUTH CAROLINA AND VIRGINIA. SOME / SERVED AS BODY SERVANTS AND / LABORERS, BUT THE MAJORITY SERVED / AS FRONT LINE TROOPS, INCLUDING / NON-COMMISSIONED OFFICERS. AFRICAN- /AMERICANS ALSO SERVED IN THE BRITISH / ARMY AND NAVY. THERE WAS NO / SEGREGATION IN THE MILITARY DURING / THE REVOLUTIONARY WAR, AND TROOPS / OF EUROPEAN, AFRICAN AND NATIVE / AMERICAN ANCESTRY SERVED SIDE-BY-SIDE AND SUFFERED THE / SAME HARDSHIPS.
AN EXAMPLE OF AN AFRICAN-AMERICAN SOLDIER FROM MECKLENBURG COUNTY IS / DEMPSEY REED, A “FREE NEGRO” WHO SERVED AS A SUBSTITUTE FOR A MECKLENBURG / RESIDENT NAMED NATHANIEL HARRIS. REED WAS WOUNDED IN BATTLE AND RECEIVED / PAYMENT FOR HIS MILITARY SERVICE FROM THE STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA IN 1783.
ANOTHER LOCAL AFRICAN-AMERICAN SOLDIER WAS ISHMAEL TITUS, A SLAVE FROM / ROWAN COUNTY WHO SERVED AS A SUBSTITUTE FOR HIS MASTER, LAWRENCE ROSS. / TITUS FOUGHT IN THE BATTLES OF KINGS MOUNTAIN, GUILFORD COURTHOUSE AND / DEEP RIVER. HE WAS GRANTED HIS FREEDOM AFTER THE WAR AND DIED AT THE AGE OF / 110 IN MASSACHUSETTS.
Lovell’s distant cousin, Solomon Titus Taylor, from Rochester, N.Y., first told her about the Revolutionary War hero Ishmael Titus and their connection to him. He says there are “untold stories of our American heroes.”
There were heroes like Thomas Carney, a slave who fought in many battles for the Maryland Line. In one instance, he saved a wounded officer and in another bayonetted a number of British soldiers.
As Solomon Taylor, said, he was among thousands of African Americans who "fought for America to be free even though they were not free themselves.”
Tom Moore is a native Baltimorean, living in Brooklyn and teaching journalism at York College in Queens, New York, part of the City University of New York. He also is a CBS News radio writer and yes, he's still an Orioles fan after living in New York City for more than 35 years.