A central myth of American history teaching is that the American Revolution was fought for the “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” of each person. By each, Jefferson sadly meant mainly white farmers. This patriotic myth—what I call a Founding Amnesia—drove Frederick Douglass, in 1852, to declare that the Fourth of July was not for slaves.
But perhaps in contrast to its long history of racist exclusion, the Daughters of the American Revolution should first honor black Patriots. As Georg Daniel Flohr, a German private who fought at the decisive battle Yorktown with the French Royal Deux-Ponts for the Patriots, noted while walking around the field of battle the next day: “all over the place and wherever you looked, corpses… lying about that had not been buried; the larger part of these were Mohren [Moors, blacks].”
And as I emphasize in Black Patriots and Loyalists (2012), the acme of freedom in the American Revolution was the gradual emancipation of slaves in Vermont (not yet a state) in 1777, in Pennsylvania in 1780, in Massachusetts in 1782, in Connecticut and Rhode Island in 1784, in New York in 1799, and in New Jersey in 1804. If we ask the central question in American history: how did there come to be a free North to oppose bondage in the Civil War, the answer is, surprisingly: gradual emancipation during and just after the American Revolution. Thus, black Patriots and their white abolitionist allies played a central, undiscussed role both in battle and in the deepening of American freedom.
Finally, why did the man believed to be the first martyr of the American Revolution, Crispus Attucks, an escaped slave of black and Native American parentage who became a sailor, fiercely take on the Redcoats in the Boston Massacre? Attucks is part of a complex history that reveals how much the Revolutionary War and the Fourth of July are a day that belongs to African Americans.