Anyone wanting to learn about Revolutionary War-era history as it relates to African-Americans shouldn’t rely on movies such as Mel Gibson’s “The Patriot,” a local historian says.
“Sometimes a historian can be a pest,” Dr. Cory Stewart said during a black history program at Ararat Missionary Baptist Church in Mount Airy, regarding the shooting down of myths. “Sometimes you’re telling people things they don’t want to hear.”
That goes for popular movies including “The Patriot,” which portrays black-white relations in Colonial times as cozy — and unified regarding America’s fight for independence.
However, their real relationship was much different, according to Stewart, a professor at Surry Community College who specializes in the Revolutionary War period.
Black First To Die
A major irony surrounded Crispus Attucks, a slave who was killed by British soldiers during the Boston Massacre in 1770, one of the events triggering the war.
“By all eyewitness accounts he was the first person shot,” Stewart told a nearly full church at Sunday night’s program for which he was keynote speaker — “the first person whose blood was shed” for the cause of freedom.
But when the war actually broke out, blacks generally weren’t part of the American forces — and not by their own choosing.
Only free blacks were recruited to fight in the Continental Army, Stewart said. The exact number who served is not known, “but more often than not they weren’t armed,” he added, which reflected a constant fear of a violent uprising by blacks.
Meanwhile, it is estimated that more than 20,000 African-Americans fought on the side of the redcoats, lured by the promise of their freedom offered in return. That differs from the Mel Gibson movie, which portrays blacks having been liberated by their owners in order to retire to a coastal settlement.
In fact, efforts such as Dunmore’s Proclamation — a 1775 British decree in Virginia declaring martial law and promising freedom for slaves of patriots who left their masters and joined the royal army — did much to galvanize Americans, Stewart said.
Until then, there wasn’t much support for the revolution in Virginia, but after the proclamation the ranks of patriot militias there swelled, the historian continued.
Stewart pointed out that the formation of local militias, as well as law enforcement agencies, resulted not from fears regarding crime but of slave uprisings.
Later, many slaves took advantage of the chaotic conditions surrounding the Revolutionary War to run away, due to militias being distracted and their owners going away to fight in some cases. They often took refuge behind British lines, which sometimes led to them escaping to Canada and even Africa, Stewart said.
But since the Brits lost the war, the pledge of freedom for slaves was never acted on, he said. Some who had been free even got sold or were put back into slavery.
White Americans’ disregard for slaves only intensified after the war as the new nation took shape and adopted its Constitution.
Although the historic document contains terms such as “we the people” and “all men are created equal,” that did not apply to blacks, women or the poor. Stewart explained that the Constitution’s principles were intended to protect white men who were landowners.
“Slavery was not mentioned in the Constitution,” the historian said, noting that it strengthened the institution instead. Still, that issue was addressed at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. While some delegates attending it had anti-slavery leanings, they were afraid of pressing too hard for fear of prompting walkouts by those from Southern states dependent on slave labor for plantations.
This reflected the “tenuous” process involved with adopting the Constitution, Stewart said.
“The slave trade was abolished by our Constitution, but not until 1805,” which actually was accompanied by a rush on buying slaves.
When North Carolina was forming its own governmental policies, officials banned the importation of slaves but not their exchange between colonies — due to a belief that newer arrivals would be more militant.
Stewart said a quote from Thomas Jefferson illustrates America’s mixed feelings toward slavery at the time: “We have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.”
“The American Revolution did bring the institution of slavery under serious public scrutiny,” the historian added in citing one positive development of the late-1700s events.
This set into motion the wheels that eventually led to its abolishment, which would not come until nearly 100 years after the Revolutionary War started. In the meantime, the number of blacks in bondage grew from about 400,000 in Revolutionary times to an estimated 4 million in slave states at the start of the Civil War.
During a question-and-answer session after his presentation, Stewart said he believes the historical treatment of blacks in the U.S. is more a result of “human habit” than “human nature.” Not only blacks, but Chinese, Latinos and Japanese have faced racism when trying to become part of America’s middle class, he said.
“We kind of move from one scapegoat to the next,” added Stewart, who said that is why the efforts of groups such as the NAACP, which sponsored Sunday night’s program, remain vital.
The program also included the reading of a recent Black History Month proclamation issued by Mayor Deborah Cochran, and group singing of songs such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “I’ll Fly Away.”
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or firstname.lastname@example.org.