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Honoring Black Patriots

To the Saturday morning drivers passing by the First Baptist Church, the men in Continental uniform, flanked by flags and wreaths and firing muskets in a salute, must have spurred a double-take.

For the small group in attendance—most descendants of black patriots of the Revolutionary War—it was a solemn moment. Finally, their ancestors’ contributions to America’s independence were being recognized.

The event, sponsored by the Northern Neck of Virginia Historical Society, was also a chance for them to connect with other families and to try to find out more about their ancestors.

Dannette Connor Ward has researched three ancestors, the Laws brothers from Northumberland County. She’s been able to trace paperwork as far back as 1740 and to their service in the Revolutionary War.  

Timothy Laws died aboard the ship Tempest. Brothers William and John died shortly after the war. Their younger brother, David, her direct descendant, was too young to follow them in the war, but she was able to obtain copies of papers showing his children and grandchildren were free men.

“His son and his son’s son both had to carry papers in their pockets at all times to say they were free,” she said.

For most black patriots, freedom was a bargaining chip used by the British and the Colonists to get slaves and indentured servants to serve in the war.

The historical society has uncovered the names of 50 black sailors and soldiers from the Northern Neck, which were read aloud during the ceremony.

“We have discovered names of soldiers and seamen who did take the place of their master during the war,” said Kathy Schuder, executive director of the historical society. “Some took the place of their master, some did gain their freedom for their service, some of them did not.”

“Black patriots were looked at for their talents,” said Charles Belfield, vice president of the historical society and president of the James Monroe Chapter Virginia Society Sons of the American Revolution. Belfield donned boots and clothing his European ancestor, a light horseman, would have worn, for a reenactment that was part of Saturday’s  program.

He said Northern Neck men mainly served as seamen in the Navy because of their skills navigating the waterways of the region and the Chesapeake Bay.

“They were the ones aboard the ships that protected the Northern Neck,” said Belfield. “Joseph Ranger was one of the most noted ones. His ship was captured and he was declared as one of the most daring and bravest men in the Virginia Navy during that time of the American Revolution.”

Ranger, a free man from Northumberland County, served for nine years on four vessels, staying on after the end of the war. He was on the Jefferson when it was blown up by the British on the James River and taken prisoner. After the war, he was given 100 acres and an annual pension by the General Assembly, according to “Black Heroes of the American Revolution,” a book by the NAACP.

“They were experts on the water,” said Schuder. “They were able to climb up in rank because of their knowledge and experience, otherwise they would have been suppressed because of their color, unfortunately.”

Information on black ancestors can be difficult to uncover. Many records have been destroyed and surprisingly, those that do exist often don't refer to a person's color.

Reenactor Charles Jameson, of Culpeper, has black and European ancestors. He can readily find records of his European ancestors, John and David Jameson, both colonels in the Revolutionary War. But he doesn’t know if his black ancestors fought in the war, nor has he been able to find much information.

“It’s really so much harder for African Americans to trace their lineage,” he said. “I’m working on that now. I think I may have found one association with it.”

His great-grandmother was described as mulatto, as was his father’s mother. He said later on, people labeled mulattos as gypsies. Words are key to those trying to track down their ancestry and changes in descriptions and labels can make research difficult.

Slavery separated families.

In addition, slavery separated families.

Credit Pamela D'Angelo
Charles Sydnor, President of the Northern Neck of Virginia Historical Society and Thomas Duckenfield III, who has several ancestors who fought and contributed to the Colonial efforts in the Revolutionary War.

“Just a few miles of separation and you can lose track with the diaspora of family members,” said Thomas Duckenfield, an attorney from the District of Columbia and the keynote speaker at the event. “A lot of the people I met today, I discovered I was connected to.”

He is a descendant of slaves from Robert Carter III, who freed some 500 slaves through manumission in 1791. He’s also a descendent of James McCoy, a black patriot from Westmoreland County, and Moses Liverpool, who caulked Navy ships.

Duckenfield has found a wealth of information in free registers that listed free blacks back to about 1801, tax records where people are designated as “free black” or “FB.” He has looked through plantation records and wills and runaway slave advertisements. And he’s enlisted the help of relatives of European descent.

“I’ve used all of those to piece together the story of my ancestry,” said Duckenfield. “And then as African Americans we also have a substantial white ancestry ... and I’ve been able to trace some of these families.”

He has, with some trepidation, approached his white cousins to get more information from documents they might have.

“Will they accept me or not?” he said. “I found they’ve all been welcoming because we help each other learn about our common ancestry.”

Schuder describes a patriot as “someone who contributed to the cause” and the historical society is keen to point out all the contributions made by enslaved communities throughout the region during the war. 

Robert Carter III used slaves on his tobacco plantations, including Nomini Hall in Westmoreland, to produce food and clothing during the war.

According to Schuder’s research, at times, so much wheat and corn was being received that mill wheels turned for 18 hours a day. The production of salt, a dire wartime shortage, was taken over by the enslaved communities in Westmoreland. 

Where tobacco once grew, crops of flax, hemp and cotton were planted. The tobacco stone house was turned into a textile factory and slaves were taught seamstress work.

“Another amazing contribution is from James Hunter’s Iron Works in Stafford County, near Falmouth,” said Schuder.

Operating as early as 1759, some 260 slaves produced muskets, pistols and swords there for the Continental Army.

Historians say that had it not been for the many items produced in Hunter’s Iron Works, America would not have won the Revolutionary War, according to the Stafford County Museum.

Charles Sydnor is president of the historical society. He said Saturday’s event was important in that it taught the value and contribution of all people of all races to our freedom.

“It preserves and recognizes a part of history that ... perhaps we ignored or forgot or disrespected and now we can honor it,” he said.

For many people, the contribution of black Americans to the Revolutionary War was never taught.

“I came through high school in the ’60s and ’70s, and there wasn’t an emphasis on African American history,” said First Baptist Church Pastor John Fountaine, an African American who grew up in Mayo on a sharecropper’s farm.

He said it’s especially important for African Americans to know their history.

“We are subject to be denied of certain rights in our current day environment if we don’t understand our past performance,” he said. “If we don’t understand history, you cannot generate a legitimate argument of why it is you are asking for and why it is that you are demanding and why it is you expect so much of the current environment we are living in.”

Click here for Forgotten Patriots, a digital publication about African American and American Indian patriots by the Daughters of the American Revolution.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

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