More accurately, the celebration of the Fourth of July, of American freedom in particular, may have then belonged to white Americans but Douglass was mistaken in his assertion that the Fourth of July did not belong to African-Americans. The critical role African-Americans played in establishing the nation is not brought up enough.
There was a time, even during slavery, when it was hard to ignore the fact that Crispus Attucks, a fugitive slave, served as a key catalyst to the American Revolution. When British soldiers fired upon the colonists in 1770, in what is now immortalized as the “Boston Massacre,” Attucks was the first to die.
How ironic that a black man, once enslaved but defying the law that deemed him a slave to take his freedom, would become the martyr for freedom and equality to those who denied him the same dignity?
But it did not begin and end with Attucks. Take a closer look at the American Revolution and it’s extremely hard to ignore African-American contributions to the birth of this nation. Lord Dunmore, the British governor of Virginia, banked on African-Americans to help Britain prevail over the colonists by promising any slave who fought with the British freedom.
A visit to Colonial Williamsburg where such times are consistently played out during its popular re-enactment known as “Revolutionary City,” as well as through other programming, reveals how invested African-Americans were in the Revolutionary War and just how dramatic the decision to side with the Patriots or the Loyalists was for those enslaved. There were some who believed that there was no way that the Patriots could demand their freedom and then continue to hold another race in bondage and sided with the colonists while others saw fighting with the British as their only opportunity for freedom.
In the British “Ethiopian” brigade, about 300 African Americans fought at the Battle of the Great Bridge on December 9, 1775.
The British decision to recruit African-Americans to fight was impactful. In July 1775, George Washington went to great pains to bar African-Americans from fighting in the war but, by December 1775, had to reverse that policy to at least let free blacks serve. Some states like New Hampshire and New York took it a step further by promising freedom to slaves who fought for the Patriots. Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island even had all-black companies. And many served honorably.