America's too-long-forgotten black heroes

WHO was Crispus Attucks? Many people know that Attucks was the first casualty in the American Revolution. But it's unlikely they also know that he was a runaway slave from Framingham, Mass. Who was Salem Poor? Prince Hall? William Flora? James Robinson? Just as the details of Attucks's background are absent from most history books, the names of the three other black men -- patriots in the Revolution -- are also absent.

These are but four of the 5,000 blacks -- slaves and freedmen -- who fought to liberate colonies that at best offered them second-class citizenship, at worst involuntary servitude.

US Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R) of Connecticut wants a fitting memorial to these unsung heroes in the nation's capital. Her bill for such a monument was recently passed, 408 to 0, by the House of Representatives and is expected to pass the Senate within the year.

``In a city of countless memorials and endless lines of tourists searching for reminders of the contributions to America's past, there is but one memorial to a black person, [educator] Mary McCloud Bethune,'' Representative Johnson says. ``Few Americans are fully aware of even the rudiments of the historic contributions of blacks to the birth of America.''

Maurice Barboza, president of the Black Revolutionary War Patriots Foundation, learned about them as the result of research into his family history. Belatedly acting on his childhood fascination with a picture on his grandmother's living-room wall -- it was of his great, great, grandfather in a Civil War uniform -- he decided one day to go to the Library of Congress and ``find out who I was.''

Mr. Barboza found a wealth of black history he hadn't anticipated. He says this new knowledge of black contributions to America makes him sad when ``black people, or any other people, express ambivalence'' about participation in American celebrations like the Fourth of July and this year's centennial celebration of the raising of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.

``This unfortunate attitude, which reinforces separateness, is the offspring of an educational system whose purpose was to make blacks feel inferior and apart from the mainstream. The remnants of Jim Crow [statutes enacted by the Southern states beginning in the 1880s which legalized segregation between the races] still behave as an invisible hand which keeps us divided and makes black people emotional drifters, grasping for an America they can call `ours,' '' Barboza says.

US Rep. Parren J. Mitchell (D) of Maryland, himself a veteran of World War II, said, ``I remember very distinctly when I was wounded. I thought to myself as I was recuperating in the hospital: `Why should I do this? Why should I have jeopardized my life?' when in many of the states at that time I was not given full and equal access to all that this nation affords. Just as those [black] men did in the war for our independence, I realized that by so doing maybe, maybe, we could create a climate in which this country could one day achieve its true potential for greatness.''

When the Continental Army was organized, free black soldiers of Boston protested successfully an order to exclude them from service. But at a meeting in 1775, attended by George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, it was decided to bar further black enlistments.

Two years later the colonists desperately needed manpower, and blacks were actively recruited. While serving as soldiers and sailors, blacks were killed, wounded, and captured by the British, just like their white compatriots.

Slaves traded tours of duty for freedom. Free blacks joined in the hope of gaining the same political freedom whites enjoyed. They served in all major battles, including Lexington and Concord, Ticonderoga, Monmouth, Savannah, and Yorktown. Two blacks, Prince Whipple and Oliver Cromwell, were in the boat with Washington when he crossed the Delaware to capture Trenton, N.J.

Many blacks distinguished themselves in battle; some were cited for heroism. In Virginia, William Flora served with the militia in the battle of Great Bridge. Flora, ``amidst a shower of musket balls,'' according to Benjamin Quarles in his book ``The Negro in the American Revolution,'' was the last sentinel to leave his post. Another slave (property of the father of future Chief Justice John Marshall) crossed British lines and duped the redcoats into thinking Great Bridge was inadequately manned.

Particularly noteworthy was the heroism of Salem Poor. His bravery was cited in a petition to the General Court of Massachusetts and signed by 14 officers. It said that ``a negro called Salem Poor, of Col. Frye's regiment, Capt. Ames' company, in the late battle of Charlestown, behaved like an experienced officer, as well as an excellent soldier. . . .''

Salem Poor served later at Valley Forge and White Plains.

Barboza has led the campaign on Capitol Hill for a monument to such patriots. The House exempted the legislation for a memorial to black patriots from a law that caps the number of monuments on federal lands.

Barboza says the memorial would ``make us see that the history of blacks did not begin with the bus boycotts of the 1950s, but rather had its roots deep in America's past.``

US Rep. Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D) of New Jersey, the son of Italian immigrants, said at a congressional hearing in support of the monument: ``We were not always looked upon as I was growing up as real Americans, because we were transplanted. I struggled to prove that we were `real' Americans. Blacks have had to do the same thing, but under circumstances so overwhelming and so calculated to make them feel like outsiders that it is a wonder that we are where we are today. This memorial would reinforce my feelings as an American and those of other descendants of immigrants. It will tell all of us the true meaning of the word American.''

Barboza and others who support his cause, including the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Prince Hall Masons (Prince Hall fought at Bunker Hill and later established the first black Masonic chapter), want the memorial constructed in Constitution Gardens, midway between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. The black patriots memorial would be directly across from a monument to the 56 signers of the US Constitution.

The adoption of the Constitution was a disappointment to blacks. It recognized the legality of slavery and counted each slave as ``three-fifths'' of a person in determining apportionment of taxes.

Barboza maintains the monument's location is as important as its establishment. The Senate bill does not specify a site. Barboza said an obscure location would relegate to obscurity once again the role of blacks in American history.

``Because the patriots memorial would strive to achieve equality and understanding among people, it must be situated in an environment capable of conveying that statement. The patriots memorial must be closest to those things with which it shares a common history and which it is commonly perceived to have no relationship at all. Only then can the memorial explode myths and misperceptions,'' he said.

Barboza said the spirit of men like James Robinson defines Americanism. Robinson was born a Maryland slave. When the Revolutionary War broke out, he asked to serve in the Colonial Army. He fought at Brandywine and Yorktown.

Robinson was decorated for valor, then shipped back to slavery in Louisiana. He saw service again as a volunteer in the War of 1812. Despite contributions to two wars, he was not freed until after the Civil War. Robinson died in Detroit at the age of 115.

``People lose sight of some very fundamental things,'' says Barboza. ``They define success as education, worldly goods, external things. But there are certain things that you need to survive -- perseverance, desire, strength. These elements were possessed by people that happened to be slaves, people who sustained horrendous indignities.

``Some of us don't know what we have unless we look back,'' Barboza concludes. ``We are all descendants of these people, black or white, descendants in spirit. Like Mr. Robinson's freedom, the patriots memorial is long overdue.''

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