Give Me Black History! [or not…]

In which the Writer of this Blog tries to shore up a little Historical footnote in the name of his Black Peoples'—past, present, and future—Great Black-story in particular & in the Service of the Greater history of All peoples & Critters and plants and rocks & Things… 

General George Washington with unidentified groom 

Some of you may recall that February has been designated Black History Month, although most of us are hard-pressed to state exactly what particular history—if any—is covered by that tag. Many promoters of the twenty-eight day observance are happy to repeat a number of names whose personalities have long placed them among the pantheon of humankind, mostly men who attracted enough recognition in their lifetimes to be called famous or—in some circles—infamous. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X come to mind with no effort, though one may need to stifle the sneaking suspicion that their untimely assassinations loom so large as to overshadow their lives. Having identified these two pillars of mid-twentieth century America's struggle for civil rights, retracing “Black History” is an uncertain endeavor. For no other reason than the fact that I’ve named this blog a repository of worthwhile memory (a cavalier regard for our confounded society of the spectacle notwithstanding), I hereby offer my own humble contribution to a moment or two in our collective story. Ever aware of my impure racial heritage—albeit purely human and historically American—I address figures whose biographies are enmeshed in a period significant to all mankind: the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the age of the American colonies’ revolution against the British crown. As preface, let us briefly glance at the comportment of some of our white, working-class, New England-based brethren.

The great success of the American (and, in arguably similar fashion, the French) revolution derives from singular circumstances that victory ensured would never return. The rising class struggle which shaped contintental Europe’s history for the century and a half after Waterloo—a struggle that enjoyed less momentum in America likely due to the bane that was slavery—actually began in the same shaky unification of classes seen in the thirteen colonies. Driving this uneasy alliance was the centuries old collusion between royalty and the church, a combination resented by the newly-moneyed merchants as well as the working and indigent poor. In America, the poor turned to evangelists who preached that one needed no intermediary to encounter the divine. Meanwhile, the wealthy saw that their riches accrued despite bloodline—God favored their endeavor and enterprise as readily as heredity (perhaps more so). The church, supreme and ephemeral power behind the royal scam—be it Archbishopric or Papist—was done for.

When the shoemaker Ebenezer Mackintosh emerged on 5 November 1765 as Boston’s Captain General of the Liberty Tree, helming that year’s anti-papist Pope’s Day march (derived from Guy Fawkes Day) in opposition to the crown’s proposed Stamp Act, John Adams, Samuel Adams and John Hancock discovered that “the People, even to the lowest ranks have become more attentive to their Liberties.” Still, when defending the British soldiers who killed five Beantown workers on 5 March 1770—known as the Boston Massacre—John Adams described the protestors as “a Motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and molottoes, Irish Taegues, and outlandish Jack tars.” And when leaders at a November 1773 tea party meeting got rid of rules that restricted official town meetings to property owners, Judge Thomas Hutchinson claimed the Old South Meeting House was packed with “the lower Ranks of the People & even Journeymen Tradesmen ... & the Rabble were not excluded.” The tea was dumped into Boston’s harbor a few weeks later, on 16 December. Insurgents in Newport, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston quickly threatened to do the same and the British took heed.

Thereafter, the British occupied Boston and the seat of revolt shifted forty-five miles west to Worcester, where the blacksmith “Timothy Bigelow at length arose, without learning, without practice in public speaking, without wealth—the Tories of Worcester had, at that day, most of the wealth and learning—but there he stood upon the floor of the Old South Church, met the Goliath of the day, and vanquished him.” Bigelow spent the first part of 1774 battling the Tory faction that had controlled Worcester for a decade. In June, the British eliminated all vestiges of home rule in Massachussetts, effectively pushing moderates over to the rebel cause, an advantage Bigelow exploited—ignoring pleas for restraint from the likes of Adams—until his faction and other like-minded, leather-apron contingents controlled the entire state by year’s end, save for occupied Boston. Lexington and Concord were at hand.

By September of 1775, armed rebellion had spread through all the colonies, and Virginia’s royal governor, Lord Dunmore, fled his Williamsburg mansion for the refuge of a British warship in the James River. In mid-November, he published a document that promised freedom to all slaves and indentured servants ready to fight for the king. At the end of two weeks, he planned to train the nearly three hundred runaways newly in his camp as the Ethiopian Regiment. Ten days later, the ragged force was routed by the Virginia militia at Great Bridge with over a hundred dead or prisoners, thereby turning Southerners’ nightmare of black revolt into the subject of derision. But at George Washington’s Potomac River plantation, the general’s cousin, Lund, wrote to him regarding their Negro property just before the battle, “there is not a man of them, but would leave us, if they believe’d they could ... Liberty is sweet.”

Born in Africa around 1740, Harry Washington was imported to America where George Washington purchased him in 1763, directly pressing his new slave into two years' hard labor on the failed effort to drain Great Dismal Swamp. Harry then slaved in Mount Vernon’s stables, running away in 1773 (some say 1771), only to be captured and returned within a few weeks. When Dunmore issued his proclamation two years later, his base was too far from Mount Vernon for Harry to make a new bid for freedom. Perhaps it was just as well: despite ample food and shelter, smallpox and typhoid snuffed out close to eight hundred souls by summer of ’76. Still, the wretched of America continued to pour into the beleaguered camp at the rate of ten a day. As Dunmore finally readied to leave Chesapeake Bay, he sent a squadron of eight vessels up the Potomac for water on 19 July. Alerted to the small foray, Harry Washington and a couple of white indentured servants bolted for freedom in a stolen boat, avoiding riverbank militia and uniting on 24 July with the British flagship HMS Roebuck, an entry in the captain’s log duly noting the recruitment of “three of General Washington’s servants.” By October, Harry was one of two thousand black refugees in British-occupied New York City, “employed by the Royal artillery Department and housed in barracks created out of four row houses in Lower Manhattan” close to the Customs House.

After five years in the city, the ambiguous security enjoyed by the freed Negroes was crushed by Cornwallis’ defeat in the South late in 1781. There would be no safe reunion with those left behind, a fact exacerbated a year later when the provisional peace signed at Paris forbade the British from “carrying away any Negroes or other property of the American Inhabitants.” British commander-in-chief Sir Guy Carleton ordered Brigadier General Birch to issue certificates of freedom to all who had been with them a year or more. When General Washington confronted Carleton with this treaty violation, he was told the British would not be dishonored by “violating their faith to the Negroes.” Carleton did allow two American inspectors to observe embarkations, one of whom was Daniel Parker, the army contractor Washington had engaged to recapture his runaway property. Nevertheless, Harry boarded L’Abondance in July 1783 for Nova Scotia, enlisted as Henry Washington, aged forty-three and seven years freed of Mount Vernon.

At Nova Scotia, near Shelburne, the freed blacks established the community of Birchtown after the General Birch who signed their freedom certificates. And now, their troubles began. Waiting as much as three years for the land grants they were promised, the rocky ground granted them was unsuitable for sustainable farming. Cold and poorly, they turned to the spirit, blowing the mind of one Methodist preacher who visited the town and found fourteen different groups meeting each night. He chalked this up to one Daddy Moses, a Virginia runaway and preacher who came away from the plagues of Lord Dunmore’s Chesapeake Bay outpost blinded from smallpox and unable to walk or stand without help. Thus afflicted, he apparently could preach his ass off, remaining the community’s spiritual head until his last breath.

The bedraggled refugees having endured eight years of hardscrabble subsistence, John Clarkson, sibling of the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson, arrived at Birchtown in late 1791 and told the hundreds who packed the Methodist meetinghouse that his Sierra Leone Company was offering land for free in the West African colony: twenty acres per man, ten per woman, five for each child with no racial discrimination. Three days later, the congregation chose to go en masse, including Harry Washington and Jenny, his wife, packing one ax, one pickax, one saw, two muskets, and various pieces of furniture. The Washingtons left behind a house, two lots and forty miserable acres. Arriving on the last day of February 1792 at Sierra Leone after months at sea, the settlers took up the Wesleyan hymn:

Wake! Every heart and every tongue
To praise the Savior’s name.
The day of Jubilee is come!
Return ye, ransomed sinners, home.

But the new colonists soon realized they had traded a rock for a hard place. A month after their arrival, having hacked out rudimentary clearings in which they erected slapdash huts amidst “a jungle of thorny bush and sharp-edged elephant grass,” the monsoons hit without warning, spreading malaria and rotting all their provisions. Worse, John Clarkson threatened Thomas Peters—elected by the black settlers as their secular leader—with hanging, having blamed Peters for virtually all their woes. Peters died of malaria in June, a disillusioned and broken man. In seemingly constant battle with the Sierra Leone Company’s representatives, the community somehow managed to grow and by 1800, the outpost they had named Free Town was the largest town on Africa’s west coast with four hundred timber and shingle homes laid out on nine streets, assorted livestock, and a busy waterfront serving the Company’s trade ships, slave traders, and scores of canoes filled with produce from the many Africans native to the region. Harry and his wife, Jenny, were among the fews settlers who farmed, most of the former plantation hands preferring to fish or engage in trade rather than bend over the earth anew, ignoring company demands that they produce cash crops of sugar and coffee. The widow Mary Perth—among the first to answer Lord Dunsmore’s call to freedom back in Virginia, secured with her master’s aid—ran a thriving boardinghouse and shop near the waterfront until her death in 1813. In 1799, Perth left for England with the Company governor, returning two years later.

During their absence, the settlers rebelled against Company rule but were ruthlessly supressed. Two Methodists were executed and forty others, inluding Harry Washington, were exiled as ringleaders. Within a year, Harry died, just shy of sixty (some say he left the colony and was elected leader of the exiles, heard from in Freetown no more). The Company’s director, William Wilberforce, insisted the colony was better off since runaway slaves were “the worst possible subjects, as thorough Jacobins as if they had been trained and educated in Paris.” Harry Washington’s remarkably unremarkable life exemplifies the black experience in America with all its shattered promises and incomprehensible faith in a crazy cargo cult deity cut from all kinds of cloth, whole and otherwise. That he cut Mount Vernon loose says plenty about our first President’s ideas of freedom. I need not say anymore.

May we ever be uppity...

The above text draws almost entirely from Revolutionary Founders: Rebels, Radicals and Reformers in the Making of the Nation, edited and with an introduction by Alfred F. Young, Gary B. Nash, and Ray Raphael. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2011, 464 pp., with 25 illus. and 1 map.

Jill Lepore, a contributor to Revolutionary Founders, wrote a related piece for the New Yorker some years back, in which she reviews a few books that deal with the plight of Negroes on both sides of the pond during that time. She called the piece "Goodbye, Columbus: When America won its independence, what became of the slaves who fled for theirs?"


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