African Americans in the Revolutionary War

Photo Essay

Destruction of the Royal Statue in New York

By 1770 one-fifth of the population of the thirteen colonies was of African ancestry, and almost 95 percent of the African descendants were slaves. Beginning with the Boston Massacre in 1770 and lasting for the duration of the war, African Americans played a major role in the American struggle for independence. As such a large percentage of the American population, both slaves and free blacks were militarily vital to the American and British causes. In addition to the brave individuals mentioned in this month's Photo Essay, black soldiers and sailors such as Austin Dabney, Joseph Ranger, Caesar Tarrant, and Oliver Cromwell proved themselves to be true patriots through their sacrifices in defense of their American homeland. Other blacks, such as Boston King, fought just as bravely on the British side, either out of loyalty or in the hope that a surer path toward liberty and racial equality lay with the British Crown. Indeed, the ideology of freedom that so characterized the American Revolution proved to be a galvanizing message. American patriots fighting for their independence from overseas British rule firmly believed that freedom and self-determination were "unalienable rights" without which they could not survive; as one famous patriot put it, "Give me liberty or give me death!" African Americans, however, found themselves confronted with the difficult question of what "liberty" actually meant. The fact that black patriots chose to fight for American independence despite the fact that America denied them their own freedom became a rallying cry for those who fought for the abolition of slavery in the tumultuous years that preceded the next great American struggle, the Civil War.

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The following articles have been selected to help guide readers who want to learn more about the role African Americans played in the Revolutionary War and the challenges they faced both under British colonial rule and in the fledgling United States. (Access to the following articles is available only to subscribers.)

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