Harvey Bakari on Independence for African Americans

Independence was not guaranteed for everyone in the nation’s early days.


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi. Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present. For July 4th, we turn our thoughts to independence. I’m Lloyd Dobyns, and this is Independence Day. Today I’m talking with Harvey Bakari, and at Colonial Williamsburg, he is manager of African American history interpretation.

Lloyd: I suppose the first question is – African American history interpretation about Independence Day. That may be not the happiest African American holiday I’ve ever heard of.

Harvey Bakari: Well, for some African Americans, that day probably was one that they knew that things were changing. Because what their masters were exhibiting is that they were in effect disobedient to their masters, which was the British Crown, and the king. And it probably gave some inspiration to some of the slaves that “if my master can uprise against his master, the king, and the Crown, why should I not uprise and free myself of chattel slavery from him?” So you have two things going on, you have slave masters and burgesses talking about political slavery, and you have the enslaved community who are thinking in terms of chattel slavery, and both of these groups want to free themselves of tyranny.

Lloyd: Mmm hmm, the problem is, the African Americans remain in slavery for some considerable period after that.

Harvey: Yes, there was a group of African Americans in Boston around that time, 1776, who had since 1773 or 1774, they had been writing petitions to the governor asking for their freedom. The first thing they asked for was to be sent back to Africa. The second petition they sent to the governor, which again, was not reviewed, they requested land outside of Boston. So, they were basing it on the grounds that this was a Christian country, and it was hypocritical for them to be held as slaves – particularly those slaves who were Christian slaves – it was hypocritical for Christian brothers to hold another Christian brother in bondage. But eventually, by the time of the Declaration of Independence, they wrote another petition they presented in 1777 in which, again, they were pointing out some of the contradictions in the Declaration of Independence…that this should be something that should be extended to all men. They said something to the effect of “yes, this is a great cause that you are taking up, but you need to in essence take this cause a little further and look at the people that you hold in bondage.”

Lloyd: During the Revolutionary War leading up to Independence Day, or after…get that right or it will be confusing…after the Declaration of Independence, African Americans – not then called “African Americans”…mostly called slaves or blacks – fought on both sides during the war for independence. How did that come to be?

Harvey: Well, there were a series of things that occurred prior to the war that made many of the African Americans pro British. For instance, there was a court case in 1772 called the Somerset case, where this one slave was ruled by Judge Mansfield to be free. And, to make a long story short, the rumor got back to the colonies that there was no slavery in England. And, we had one slave from Williamsburg who conspired against his master and saved up; he took some of his master’s money, and he ran away trying to get to England as a result of that case.

In addition, in 1775, there was a proclamation as the tensions grew here in Williamsburg, and the last governor issued a proclamation. And he understood, as well as the British understood, that the Achilles heel of the colonies, particularly Virginia and Maryland, was this large black population that did not want to be enslaved. So, they knew they could use that, if you’re thinking in terms of a chess game, they could use that against the colonists, to say okay if you want to uprise against us, your masters, the British Crown, then we will offer freedom to those amongst you who would like to be free.

So the governor did that. He offered freedom to all slaves who could get to Norfolk – slaves of rebel masters, sounds familiar, right, when you get to Lincoln in the 19th century – but he offered freedom to all slaves of rebel masters who could make it to Norfolk, Virginia. About 800 of them did. He formed a regiment called the Ethiopian Regiment. These were former slaves who were now armed. They had muskets; there were about 300 of them. They had this uniform that said on their chests “Liberty to Slaves.” Kind of sounds like something Patrick Henry said. And, so that’s how you had blacks fighting on the side of the British. The British were the first ones to make them the offer.

On the other hand, George Washington, when he becomes the general of the Continental Army, he has to deal with the fact that there are a lot of people who would not be very pleased if blacks were allowed to fight for the Continental Army. So, to make a long story short, eventually about 1777, because of the fact that so many blacks were flocking to the British, eventually many of the army recruiters, and then eventually officially with the Continental Congress and the Continental Army they allowed blacks to enlist in the Continental Army. One of them that stands out is the Rhode Island Regiment, which was an all-black regiment in 1778 – except for the officers – and they were not men who were just doing service and building trenches; these were fighting men. They fought in New York, Rhode Island; they eventually came down to Yorktown; they fought in the battle under Alexander Hamilton with the light infantry. They were a part of taking that 10th redoubt at Yorktown.

So, you do have this…just as you have the colonists making decisions about whether they should be loyal to the king, or whether they should take up the patriot cause. The same type of decisions have to be made by the enslaved. Should they remain with their masters, or should they go with the British? And at that point, the British being the most powerful army and navy in the world, you probably at that point would have put your money on the British.

Lloyd: Yeah (laughs). I have read somewhere that there were not many, but a few slaves who fought on the side of the Americans who were granted freedom for the skill and valor with which they fought. One of them I seem to remember was a ship’s captain. Do you remember that?

Harvey: There’s been several…but I don’t remember particularly the person you are speaking of. But in addition to fighting on the battle field and also fighting in the navy, they were spies. And of course in this area, James Armistead, who later becomes James Lafayette, was a spy for General Lafayette and was instrumental in the providing information to the Americans about the British forces for the siege of Yorktown. And so there were lots of African American spies in Virginia, well, throughout the colonies. So there were different ways they could serve their cause, and of course they were double agents, as well.

Lloyd: (Laughs) there always are… (laughs)

Harvey: (Laughs) Yeah…

Lloyd: Do you know offhand… my reading is there were not very many men who won their freedom from, for instance, the Virginia General Assembly, because of their acts of courage during the Revolution. Were there that many, or just a few?

Harvey: Well, the estimated number of African American patriots that won their freedom is about 5,000. And, there were some who actually fought as substitutes for their masters. And, those were the ones that were in question. There were some who would fight as substitute for their masters, which is really an irony, you’re fighting for American freedom, and you send your slave to fight as a substitute. Then he comes back, an enslaved person comes back and says, “Okay, master I fought for the country, I fought for independence; I want my freedom.” And some of those slave owners then said “No, I’m going to put you back into slavery.” Well, many of the Virginia legislators were outraged when they found out that some of the slave owners did this, so they passed a law in 1783 saying that all of those who fought in the war, well the term they used back then was all Negroes who fought in the war would have to be freed as if never enslaved.

Lloyd: I would take it that the slave owners didn’t particularly care for that one either.

Harvey: Well…I don’t know how they reacted to that. I’m pretty sure those who did that had to live with it. But following the Revolution, apparently the country, following the victory, I should say, apparently the country was on an emotional…they were emotionally elated. And you could see that it was easier now to free your slaves if you wanted to free them…you start seeing more integration of some of the churches, white and black churches. You start seeing the constitution of Vermont, which prohibited slavery, and you start to have the gradual emancipation of slavery in the Northern states after the war. So, there is this general emotional push that is a result of the victory of the American Revolution that is a benefit for many African Americans, until about five or six years later, when you start getting this big increase in free blacks, as a result of being freed after the war, and people freeing their slaves, that you start to get this backlash.

So, that period of elation starts to experience a kickback, where now it’s different, and it becomes more difficult again to free your slaves. Free blacks have to leave Virginia, and the surrounding states don’t want those free blacks to come into their states. So, there is a certain ebb and flow that follows the victory after the Revolutionary War.

Lloyd: Among the revolutionary leaders, only George Washington freed his slaves at the time of his death – actually Martha Washington freed them after his death – but Patrick Henry didn’t, even though he often talked about having slaves was wrong, and Thomas Jefferson didn’t, although he quite often was opposed to slavery. What prevented them?

Harvey: Well, it was, I guess as Thomas Jefferson said it was like having a wolf by the ear. In the sense that they knew that if they freed their slaves, then, number one, they would have to be compensated for it. Number two, Thomas Jefferson I believe, as well as Lincoln, explained later that there was a fear of what would happen between blacks and whites immediately after slavery. They believed that they would not be able to get along.

And so one of the things that Jefferson recommended was the exportation of African Americans out of the colony – particularly free blacks. You know, free them, and then send them out of the colonies, because blacks and whites cannot live together following this type of brutal slavery.

Another way I can answer that, too, I want to go back to your original question about Washington owning slaves. General Lafayette, the French general, tried to encourage Washington to end slavery. In a sense, he was saying “this is a great thing we fought for, liberty and freedom, and we should really take it all the way to its most extreme point, and if we’re going to fight for liberty it should be across the board.” He was a great proponent of liberty for blacks – General Lafayette.

And the last point I would make, is some of, or many of the slaves of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and the other founding fathers, they voted themselves about how they felt about the revolution. Even though their masters made great speeches about liberty and freedom, they themselves joined the British.

There is a book called “The Book of Negroes.” These were books of all the blacks who left with the British, about 20 – 25 thousand – who left and went to Nova Scotia and Canada, the West Indies… some went to England, some went to east Florida. In this book, there is a list of the names of the men, women, and children that left. And there are some slaves of George Washington, slaves of Thomas Jefferson…Thomas Jefferson was upset about the fact that the British… of course they would say the British came and took their slaves. (Laughs) They could not believe their own slaves would want freedom and would go to the British to get it. But that is another way to show some agency that the enslaved people had and the risks that they took and how they felt about liberty. If I can’t get it from Master Jefferson, Washington, and Henry, I will get it with the British. And four times as many of them did.

Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. Check history.org. often. We’ll post more for you to download and hear.

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