Black History in New England
African Americans in the American Revolution (II)
I have been pouring over the local histories of Andover, Dunstable, Dracut, Nashua and others and have been totally astounded by the rich African-American history contained in these local accounts. Blacks were a vibrant part of many local communities, but we also have to remember that many were also marginalized, subject to segregation and ill-treated. It was pointed out to me that they were denied access to many of the advantages of white society; most could not vote and they were denied access to higher education. Massachusetts ended slavery in 1788, but racial segregation in transportation did not end until the 1840’s and schools in 1855. Some might argue that segregation continued in Boston up until the 1970’s.
After the Revolutionary War, the cities and towns of New England became the home to the newly freed African-Americans, many of whom earned their freedom by serving as soldiers. There are also accounts before the Civil War of unscrupulous men kidnapping these free men in order to sell them in the South.
The Lew family of Dracut is of particular interest and I will write more about them next week. They were able to rise above the prejudice and succeed in many endeavors. What has truly amazed me, is the large number of African-Americans that served (and served with their masters) over the course of the war, and some of whom were lauded for the bravery and courage. I’ve read over the lists of hundreds and hundreds, of African-American and also Native-Americans in, “Forgotten Patriots…” a DAR Publication, who fought in the American Revolution.
My ancestor, Robert Dinsmoor was at Charlestown during the Revolution, I now understand that when he was facing down the British, there were many black men fighting bravely beside him. The Oxford African American Studies Center says, “According to one estimate, approximately five thousand black Americans took part in the fight for independence. Although many of these patriots, both free and slave, are remembered for their service, far more are unknown.”
Glenn Knoblock, who has written extensively about African-American history in New England, says that, “What buried much of New England’s African American history was the refusal by local and even regional historians (at places like Harvard), who either refused to recognize that slavery existed in the region, or if they did recognize it, painted it as a benevolent type of slavery. Interestingly, in New England, it was taught that slavery did not exist here for many years, well into the 1950’s.” Check out his book, “Strong, and Brave Fellows, New Hampshire Black Soldiers and Sailors of the American Revolution, 1775-1784.”
And I have found the name of a least one African-American from Windham who served in the Revolutionary War and I will write about him in a future column.
So lets begin with one of the most well known African-American patriots; Salem Poor. He was a black Revolutionary War solider who fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill. There are some disputes among historians about his role in the battle, but I have found eyewitness accounts from the time are often the most reliable. He was cited for his bravery to the Massachusetts Legislature, by his fellow townsmen from Andover, Massachusetts. Surely he was a hero in the battle.
In “Historical Sketches of Andover, (Baily)” Poor’s role in the battle is described by the men who witnessed it. “There is a tradition in regard to the bravery
a negro servant in the battle, which is also confirmed by the State records. The story goes that “Salem Poor,” a slave, owned by Mr. John Poor, shot Lieutenant-colonel Abercrombie. As that officer sprang on the redoubt, while our men were in retreat, and exclaimed, ‘The day is ours,’ Salem turned and took aim and fired. He saw the officer fall. The record in the Archives is as follows : —”
Recommendation of Salem Poor, A Negro, for Bravery.
“To the Honorable General Court of Massachusetts Bay.
The subscribers beg leave to Report to your Honorable House, which we do in justice to the Character of so Brave a Man that came under our observation. We declare that a Negro Man called Salem Poor, of Col. Frye’s Regiment, Capt. Ames’ company, in the late battle at Charlestown behaved like an experienced officer as well as an excellent soldier; to set forth Particulars of his conduct would be tedious. We would only beg leave to say, in the Person of this said Negro centers a Brave & Gallant soldier. The Reward due to so great and Distinguished a Character we submit to the Congress.” Cambridge, Dec. 6, 1775 Jona Brewer, Col; Thomas Winon, Lt.-col; Wm. Prescott, Col; Epheraim Cary, Lieut; Joseph Baker, Lieut; Joshua Reed, Lieut.”
“On 17 June 1775, Abercrombie led the grenadier battalion in their charge of the redoubt on the Americans’ left wing at the Battle of Bunker Hill. During the assault on Breed’s Hill, he sustained a large gunshot wound on his right thigh from an African soldier named Salem Poor, although there is probability that it was friendly fire. After removal from the Bunker Hill battleground, he was treated at a hospital facility in Boston. He succumbed to his wound a week later at the residence of British Military engineer John Montresor.”
After the war, Poor was able to purchase his freedom, he married, three times, lived for a time in Rhode Island, and ended up in a Boston Almshouse in 1793. He died in 1802 at the age of 55, and is interred at Copp’s Hill Burial Ground in Boston. There were 28 slaves in Andover MA. according to the 1754 Slave Census.
If you have an interest in this subject, Glen Knoblock has written a comprehensive history titled Strong and Brave Fellows: New Hampshire’s Black American Revolution, 1775-1784.
Forgotten patriots African American and American Indian Patriots in the Revolutionary War. http://www.cei.edu.py/biblioteca/files/ARCHIVO_777f403e50.pdf