A Heroic Heritage
(courtesy of President Glen Harris Sr. and Hazlehurst Community League)
Of all the peoples who have journeyed to America from foreign lands, African Americans have the saddest, yet the most inspiring, story. Unlike immigrants of every other nationality and race, the Africans arrived on these shores in North America and the Caribbean naked and in chains. They came as captives, sold into involuntary servitude by European slave traders and their reluctant partners, local African rulers. Some people say slaves were taken from Africa, but this is not true. It would be accurate to say people were taken from African and were made into slaves. People with hopes and ambitions, with determination and tenacity, stolen away from all that was familiar and taken to a strange land, with strange people, with peculiar ways and inhumane treatment.
European slave merchants brought approximately 15 million slaves to New World colonies in Central and South America, to the “sugar islands’ of the West Indies, and finally, to North America. The trip was a lethal journey. At least two million – 10 to 15 percent of the total kidnapped – died during the infamous “Middle Passage” across the Atlantic. Another 15 to 30 percent died during the march to or the confinement along the coast. Altogether, for every 100 slaves who reached the New World, another 40 died.
More Africans likely died during the slave raids in Africa and the forced marches to ports. Historians estimate four million died in Africa after capture, and many more died young. Africans were densely packed onto ships in cargo that was far less hygienic than modern-day pig farms.
In 1619, British colonists in Jamestown, Va., purchased America’s first African workers, 20 in all. These arrivals were not slaves, but indentured servants. The African population in America remained tiny until the turn of the 18th Century, when Virginians began importing slaves from West Africa at a rate of about 1,000 per year. By that time, slavery had spread throughout the colonies.
Africans worked as field hands in the South and as servants in the North. From 1776 to 1783, slaves bolstered the ranks of George Washington’s army in Revolutionary. Several Africans played a significant role during the war.
Perhaps the most famous African American patriot was Crispus Attucks. A 47-year-old slave, Attucks was leading a protest against taxes in Boston when he was killed by British soldiers in what became known as the Boston Massacre. His death is often considered the first casualty of the Revolution.
Washington, a slaveowner, and the Continental Army did not officially accept African American soldiers. The British offered freedom to any Black slaves or indentured servants who joined their army. The Continental Army began accepting free Black soldiers in 1775. By 1776, slaves were accepted as well, usually with the promise of freedom when the war ended. The First Rhode Island Regiment, which consisted mostly of African American soldiers, was known as a Black regiment and honored for their battle heroics.
Other African American patriots:
Austin Dabney – an artilleryman in the Georgia Militia who was wounded at the Battle of Kettle Creek
Lambert Lathan – a member of the Continental Army, he was killed trying to defend his commander at the Battle of Groton Heights
William Lee – a slave of George Washington, he served as Washington’s personal aide through the war and was freed from slavery in Washington’s will
Peter Salem – served in the Massachusetts Militia and later in the Continental Army; he fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill where he killed the British leader, Major John Pitcairn
James Armistead – an American double agent, feeding the British false information which helped lead the Americans to victory at the Battle of Yorktown
Most who fought in the war did receive their freedom. However, they soon discovered that the “freedom and equality” they had fought so hard for did not apply to African Americans. Slavery continued in the United States for over 80 years after the war.
A Heroic Heritage