How People of African Descent Established Freedom in the New World
American Founders reveals men and women of African descent as key protagonists in the story of American democracy. It chronicles how black people developed and defended New World settlements, undermined slavery, and championed freedom throughout the hemisphere from the sixteenth thorough the twentieth centuries. While conventional history tends to reduce the roles of African Americans to antebellum slavery and the civil rights movement, in reality African residents preceded the English by a century and arrived in the Americas in numbers that far exceeded European migrants up until 1820.
This is a painting titled A Ride for Liberty-The Fugitive Slaves, March 2, 1862. The painter, Eastman Johnson, had been following the Army of the Potomac into northern Virginia when he witnessed this family escaping slavery and seeking freedom in Federal territory. Affixed to the back of the painting, hanging in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, is the artist’s message: “A veritable incident as seen by myself in Centerville.”
During the American Civil War, roughly half a million enslaved people risked their lives in daring escapes just like the one depicted by Johnson (some estimates are much higher). About 200,000 of these individuals served in the Union forces officially; countless others, women especially, served unofficially. The military contributions of black Americans, Lincoln ultimately acknowledged (after earlier reservations), was essential to the preservation of the nation. Thus, when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, it was primarily a measure to officially enlist the hundreds of thousands of black Americans who had already been volunteering to defend the United States on the battlefield. By the time the proclamation was issued, emancipation was a fait accompli; African Americans had liberated themselves in massive numbers and were fighting to ensure the liberty of others.
Because the American Revolution failed to yield a democracy but rather left one fifth of the country’s population enslaved, one could argue that it was not until the Civil War that African Americans brought slavery to a close and established democracy in the United States. As I outline in American Founders, the democratic service of black Americans in the Civil War was embedded in a long and continuous tradition of Afro-American efforts to eradicate slavery throughout the hemisphere.
One hero of the American Civil War, Robert Smalls, was an enslaved South Carolinian who commandeered a Confederate ship, impersonated its captain, and brought his and several enslaved families to freedom. Smalls served the Union as a naval captain before returning to Charleston where he bought his former owner’s house (and permitted his former mistress to continue to live there until her death), was elected to Congress and helped to establish the public-school system and the Republican Party in South Carolina. Another is Mary Bowser, a freedwoman who posed undercover as a slave in the capital of the Confederacy. She feigned a dim wit, but her literacy and photographic memory allowed her to pass on sensitive information to the white baker and fellow Union spy who visited the house regularly. They were both part of a spy ring organized by white Richmonder, Elizabeth Van Lew. Harriet Tubman became the first American woman to lead a raid in the US Army when she liberated 800 enslaved individuals in a single incursion during the war.
Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761 – July 1804) was born in the West Indies to an enslaved mother and a British naval captain and raised by her great uncle in England, the Earl of Mansfield, as a noblewoman. Belle and her research may have impacted Chief Justice Lord Mansfield’s ruling that declared English slavery illegal in 1772. This landmark decision effectively abolished slavery in England, signaled the beginning of the end Atlantic slavery, and helped to foment the American Revolution. The case was brought by James Somerset who, having been held in slavery in the United States, liberated himself and demanded his freedom in a London court
while he and his owner were living abroad.
Ira Frederick Aldridge (July 24, 1807 – August 7, 1867) was an actor, born in New York City, who gained international acclaim and accolades as an interpreter of Shakespeare in the first half of the nineteenth century. As a young man, Aldridge attended the Free African School and Shakespeare productions at the African Grove Theater, founded by the Afro-Caribbean playwright William Alexander Brown, in Greenwich Village in the early 1820s. (Slavery in New York was not abolished until 1827.) Aldridge toured Europe as a performer and earned the nickname “African Roscius” as well as Prussia’s Gold Medal in Arts and Sciences, Russia’s Golden Cross of Leopold, Switzerland’s Maltese Cross, and a memorial plaque at Stratford-upon-Avon’s Royal Shakespeare Theater. “Aldridge traveled farther, was seen by more people in more nations, and won a greater number of prestigious honors, decorations, and awards than any other actor in the nineteenth century.”
Ignatius Sancho (c. 1729 – December 14, 1780) was a British composer, author, actor, merchant, and activist. He was born on a slave ship in route to Colombia and later entered domestic service in England. He ultimately became a shop owner and active in social and political life. The 1780 publication of his collected letters circulated as a best-selling book that advanced abolitionist politics in England.
Leonard Parkinson (n.d.) was a maroon captain who led Jamaica’s Second Maroon War in 1795. Throughout the Americas fugitive slaves formed powerful independent communities known as maroons. Jamaica’s various maroon communities were especially successful, having negotiated land and autonomy from the British government after Jamaica’s First Maroon War (1781-1738). When the terms of the treaty were violated, Captain Parkinson led troops in a second war during 1795 and 1796, and ultimately negotiated a treaty with British Major-General George Walpole.
Dr. Edward Alexander Bouchet (September 15, 1852 – October 28, 1918) was a physicist who was among the first Americans to earn a doctorate in the field. In 1867, completing his degree at Yale (he earned summa cum laude honors as an undergraduate), Bouchet became the sixth person in the nation to be awarded a Ph.D. in physics. He was a life-long educator who headed the science department of Philadelphia’s Institute for Colored Youth.
Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin (August 31, 1842 – March 13, 1924) was a newspaper publisher, journalist, suffragette, and activist during the second half of the nineteenth century and the start of the twentieth. She was born in Boston to parents from England and Martinique. Josephine St. Pierre married George Ruffin, a Virginia-native and attorney who graduated from Harvard Law School and served on Boston’s city council, in the Massachusetts state legislature, and ultimately as a municipal judge. Josephine collaborated with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in her work to extend the franchise to women. In the 1890s she published the newspaper Women’s Era as well as founded the Women’s Era Club. In 1895, she spearheaded the consolidation of black women’s clubs throughout the United States into the National Association of Colored Women. Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin and other members of the NACW went on to help found the NAACP in the early twentieth century.
James Armistead (December 10, 1760 – August 9, 1830) was a patriot spy during the American Revolution and among the first double agents in United States history. The intelligence Armistead gathered from Benedict Arnold and Lord Cornwallis was crucial to the American victory at Yorktown. After the war, Armistead petitioned the Virginia Assembly for his freedom and included a testimonial from the Marquis de Lafayette under whom he had served. James Armistead thereafter adopted the surname Lafayette, became a successful farmer, and raised a family in Virginia.