Created by Joseph Tache



Black Americans have always had a complex relationship with their country. The years preceding, throughout, and after the American Revolution is largely remembered for the fervor of patriotism that was stirred up among American rebels at the time.

[Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform with wife and two daughters], Library of Congress, 1863-1865, Photograph.

This exhibit explores how patriotism in pre-war and post-war America, touched the lives of Black Bostonians between 1770-1830. The displays of Black patriotism through figures like Crispus Attucks and Prince Hall are rooted in a desire for people to do right by themselves and/or their race. However, the manifestations of Black patriotism changed throughout the course of the Revolutionary era, particularly when it became painfully clear that the battle for American freedom did not encompass Black American freedom, as shown through the activism of women like Elizabeth Freeman. Elizabeth Freeman was the first African American enslaved woman who fought against the abolishment of enslavement and won. 

Notable People 

“Crispus Attucks, the First Martyr of the American Revolution,” The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution, 1968.

Crispus Attucks is most well-known as the first casualty of The Boston Massacre in 1770. More importantly, Attucks organized the demonstration that led up to the massacre; a march down King Street (now State Street) to confront British soldiers. One book lauds Attucks for striking “the first blow for America's independence, thereby electrifying the colonies and putting quite a different phase upon their grievances,”. Despite Attucks’ sacrifice for the Revolution, in 1851, the Massachusetts Legislature rejected a petition to build a monument in his honor.



Prince Hall is largely remembered as an abolitionist, minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and creator (alongside 14 other Black men) of the first African Masonic Lodge Continental Army. He was deeply committed to social justice and used the concept of freemasonry to fight against enslavement.

“Prince Hall.” Prince Hall Grand Lodge of MA.

"Elizabeth Freeman," Slavery Images, Portrait, MA.



Elizabeth Freeman, originally born as “Mum Bet,” was the first African American enslaved woman who filed for her own freedom in Massachusetts and won. This eventually led to a series of “freedom suits” and enslavement became abolished in Massachusetts in 1783.



Belinda Sutton, also known as “Belinda Royall,” was enslaved by the Royall family and most famously known for the public assertion of her rights through the 1783 petition where she fought for a pension from Isaac Royall’s estate.

“Exterior View of the Royall House and Slave Quarters,” Historic New England, Photograph.

Pre-War: General Overview 

Massachusetts debated slavery as early as 1646, but by the late-18th century, questions about the morality of slavery had taken significant space in the state’s public conscience. As talks of American liberation escalated in the late 1760s, so did discussions of Black liberation. Crispus Attucks, one of the first casualties was just one Black participant in this activism. In 1773, a petition was submitted on behalf of “many slaves living in the town of Boston, and other towns in the province,” requesting that Thomas Hutchinson, the Governor of Massachusetts, grant them freedom. Even this 'progressive' motion was colored by undertones of racism, as one part of the petition stated that “some of the negroes are vicious.” Within the following year, two more petitions for freedom were submitted to Thomas Gage, Governor Hutchinson’s successor. Petitions of freedom such as Belinda Sutton’s, which was written by Prince Hall or Mum Bett. Despite the petitions, slavery remained in Massachusetts, as both governors claimed to lack the authority to outlaw slavery in the state.


Notable People 

Nell, William Cooper, “Salem Peter the Colored American, at Bunker HillThe Colored Patriots of the American Revolution,  1969.



Peter Salem became well-known after his successes at Concord and Bunker Hill.



Barzillai Lew was a musician for the 27th regiment, and later organized Lew’s Men -- an outfit of guerilla fighters.

P.S. Duval & Son,"United States Soldiers at Camp "William Penn" Philadelphia, Pa." 1863, Library Company of Philadelphia, Chromolithographs.

Verger, Jean Baptiste Antoine De, Artist, “Soldiers in Uniform, “ 1781, United States of America Rhode Island, [Williamsburg, Virginia: publisher not identified, to 1784] Photograph.



Colonel Samuel Middleton led the acclaimed Bucks of America. He received recognition for his service during the war and then resettled on Belknap Street (now Joy Street) in Boston.



Richard Seavers began serving in the Continental Army at age 14, and continued his service until the end of the war. At one point during the revolution, Seavers was held prisoner by the British.

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection. "The shooting of Major Pitcairn (who had shed the first blood at Lexington) by the colored soldier Salem." New York Public Library Digital Collections.

During War: General Overview 

Massachusetts set an early precedent for Black military participation, as enslaved Black men were enlisted to fight Native Americans as early as 1642. As it should be no surprise that Black soldiers participated in the Battles of Lexington and Concord -- the earliest battles of the Revolution, which occurred not far from Boston in 1775. During these fights, both free and enslaved Black men such as Peter Salem were enlisted as Minutemen, a group that served as the Revolution’s first responders.

Within two months after the Revolution’s opening battles, England positioned a large number of forces in Boston. Hoping to secure a strategic position in the area, the Continental Army fortified Bunker Hill, high ground just north of Boston (though they intended to fortify Breed’s Hill). British forces attacked the Continental Army on Bunker Hill, and although the British forces heavily outnumbered the rebels, they were repelled twice before the Continental forces ran out of ammo. At least seven known Black soldiers fought for the rebels in the battle, all of whom became pensioners by the end of the war. The most notable may be Peter Salem, who killed the British Major John Pitcairn.

At the conclusion of the earliest battles of the American Revolution, there were debates about the morality of enlisting enslaved people in the Continental Army. Shortly thereafter, an appointed committee declared that only free Black men such as Richard Seavers and Barzillai Lew, would be allowed to enlist in the army. As a result, a number of slaves were emancipated so they could enlist. 

George Washington Bicentennial Commission, “View of The Attack on Bunker's Hill, with the Burning of Charles Town, June 17, 1775.” National Archives, 1775.

However, the enlistment of Black soldiers, free or not, was once again objected to, and a committee consisting of Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Kench, and the Deputy Governors of Rhode Island and Connecticut met in October of 1775 to revisit the issue. After deliberation, the committee recommended that all Black men be excluded from the army, and General George Washington endorsed this recommendation.

Some Black Americans, as well as officers and soldiers who had served in desegregated regiments, protested the ruling. The Black people of Boston and their allies saw Black army participation as an opportunity to “the intermingling of the races in the army” and thus create a stronger opportunity to “destroy slavery, and the inequality of rights among the Blacks and whites.”

However, the efficacy of excluding Black soldiers was challenged the following month by “Dunmore’s Proclamation.” John Murray, Earl of Dunmore and Royal Governor of Virginia, offered freedom to enslaved people “owned” by rebels if they took arms against the Continental Army. Following the Proclamation, the Continental Army decided to ignore the exclusion decree and reenlist Black soldiers, a decision that was endorsed by Congress in January 1776.

“Dunmore’s Proclamation,” The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, 1775, Document. 

Interestingly, as the war progress decreased on the British side and increased on the American side. After Dunmore’s Proclamation, British General William Howe restricted the number of Black soldiers who could enlist with the loyalists. On the other side, while the Continental Army still only allowed free Black men to enlist, they became well-represented in the army, as they were the first to be selected in drafts, and in some states, drafted slaveowners could send enslaved Black men as their substitutes. Robert Selig has an interesting reflection on Black patriotism of that time, as he notes that that the number of Black loyalist soldiers “is only a fraction of those who were willing to wear red coats-if only the British had let them. It is not that the Blacks were necessarily pro-British; first and foremost they were pro-Black, prepared to support the side that held out the greatest hope for them to improve their lot.”

It’s estimated that 5,000 free Black people fought for the Continental Armies and Navies throughout the war. Some enlisted in all-Black regiments, like the Bucks of America, headed by Colonel Sam Middleton, which formed in Boston. Others were in integrated regiments like the 15th Massachusetts Regiment.

In the midst of all of this, public opinion in Massachusetts swayed “so strongly in favor of the abolition of slavery, that, in some of the country towns, votes were passed in town meetings that they would have no slaves among them; and that they would not exact of the masters any bonds for the maintenance of liberated blacks, should they become incapable of supporting themselves.”

“15th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Monument,” NPS, Boston MA, Photograph.

Notable People 

Walker, David, Walker’s Appeal, in Four Articles; Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America, Written in Boston, State of Massachusetts, September 28, 1829, 1829.

David Walker was one of the most prominent critics of American practices. Walker moved to Boston in the 1820s, and it is there that he published David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World -- a condemnation of slavery and “white Christianity,” and a rousing call to action and unity for oppressed people of color.

Post War: General Overview 

Many Black Revolutionary soldiers and abolitionist allies in Boston advocated for integrated regiments, in hopes that the increased interaction would foster greater anti-slavery sentiments. However, an unforeseen consequence of integrated regiments may be that fewer Black Revolutionary veterans received recognition for their service and triumphs. The Bucks of America were among the few Black soldiers that received an individualized commendation for their service. John Hancock presented them with an honorary flag, embroidered with his initials. Of course, after the Revolution, not much changed for most Black Americans. During the early 1800s, Boston had a reputation for being more “tolerant” than most other northern cities and states, but it was rampant with harassment and discrimination nonetheless. Due to extreme segregation, Black Bostonians were highly concentrated in small geographical areas in the city, while few received adequate educational and/or employment opportunities. White young people would sometimes compound these struggles by attacking Black individuals in the Boston Common.

 “Bucks of America Flag,” Massachusetts Historical Society. 1785-1786, Painting.

What followed was a fairly prominent wave of Black disenchantment in the city. Some Black folks retaliated against the aforementioned attacks, sparking unrest. Others spoke out against what they perceived as American hypocrisy: espoused ideals of freedom and liberty existing on the same plane as practiced bigotry and racism. David Walker was particularly known for resistance and critique of American ideologies in his  Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World.

Works Cited 

“15th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Monument.” NPS, Boston MA,

“Black Boston,” The David Walker Memorial Project.  

"Bucks of America Flag." Massachusetts Historical Society Online Collection 1785-1786

Dunmore’s Proclamation.” The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. December 6, 1775.

"Elizabeth Freeman.” Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora,

“Free Black Patriots.” PBS.

George Washington Bicentennial Commission. “View of The Attack on Bunker's Hill, with the Burning of Charles Town, June 17, 1775.” National Archives. June 17, 1775.

Lipke, Alan Thomas. "The Strange Life And Stranger Afterlife Of King Dick including His Adventures in  Haiti and Hollywood With Observations On The Construction Of Race, Class, Nationality, 

Gender, Slang Etymology And Religion." University of South Florida, January 2013.

Map of Black Heritage Trail in Beacon Hill.” Digital Map. National Park Service. Boston MA.

Medford Historical Society & Museum. “Prince Hall,” February 25, 2013.

National Women’s History Museum. “Elizabeth Freeman Biography.”

Nell, William C. The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution. New York: Arno Press, 1968.

Selig, Robert A. "The Revolution's Black Soldiers.”American Revolution.

Walker, David. Walker's Appeal; in Four Article Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of  the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of Americas  Boston, Massachusetts: 1830.

Wilkes, Laura E. Missing Pages in American History, Revealing the Services of Negroes in the  Early Wars in the United States of America, 1641-1815. Washington, D.C.: Press of R.L. Pendleton, 1919.

Wilson, Joseph T. The Black Phalanx: A History of the Negro Soldiers of the United States in the War of  1775-1812, 1861-'65. Hartford, CT: American Pub., 1888