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'Forgotten Soldier' exhibition tells the sacrifices of African Americans during the Revolution

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By DENISE M. WATSON | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: February 1, 2020

(Tribune News Service) — Zoom in on Paul Revere’s famous engraving, “Bloody Massacre.”

Zoom closer, to the far left corner. The piece is a re-creation of the 1770 Boston Massacre, one of the stepping stones to the Revolutionary War.

Almost out of the frame, among several dying colonial patriots, is the brown-faced rebel and former slave Crispus Attucks.

A copy of the engraving – with a focus on Attucks’ face – opens the special “Forgotten Soldier” exhibition at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown.

“Forgotten Soldier” highlights the often-overlooked enslaved African Americans and freed blacks who fought on both sides of the war.

The collection contains several, gawk-worthy stops – rare items from England, the U.S. National Archives, Library of Congress and art commissioned by MacArthur “genius” grant-winner Titus Kaphar.

They tie how the war impacted African Americans, particularly those in the Tidewater area. Curator Kate Gruber hopes visitors will “shift their gaze” and think about the revolution beyond the usual story of frustrated colonists overthrowing the British yoke.

African Americans made up about 20% of the colonial population; more than half lived in Virginia and Maryland. Slavery existed in all 13 colonies, and while colonists wanted to break away from Great Britain, they had no plans to free slaves. The vast majority of African Americans were enslaved.

While some local militias had free African Americans in their ranks, the Continental Army initially excluded them. That changed when the war started and it needed the manpower. Some colonies like Connecticut allowed slave owners to free their workers to meet enlistment quotas.

“We’re acknowledging a part of American history that doesn’t get its proper due,” said Gruber, special exhibition curator for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.

Once visitors learn to look for the hidden stories, “so much more will be illuminated,” she said. “This is more than a history lesson. ... I want our visitors to have a new tool in their toolkit.”

The exhibition will be on display through March 22, but additional programming has been added throughout the museum for Black History Month.

A main thread of the exhibition is that African Americans were not quiet bystanders as colonists rose up against the British.

For example, one of the displayed documents is a petition for freedom presented to the Massachusetts Council and House of Representatives in January 1777. It was one of several the enslaved residents had presented repeatedly during the years.

One of its signers is Prince Hall, a formerly enslaved man. Even after he was emancipated, he continued to push Massachusetts to abolish slavery. It officially did after the end of the war in 1783, but slavery and the transatlantic slave trade continued to flourish.

Gruber said the Revolutionary era was an anxious time for all colonists, but probably more so for African Americans.

When the war began, Virginia’s governor issued “Dunmore’s Proclamation,” which placed the colony under martial law.

It also stated that able-bodied enslaved men who were willing to bear arms could fight for the British and be freed. They had to be owned by rebel colonists. The Emancipation Proclamation of the Civil War carried similar terms when Abraham Lincoln specified slaves in “rebellious states” would be freed.

But the 1775 document didn’t allow for women or children or the old, Gruber pointed out.

So, if you’re a male slave, do you leave your family behind? If your owner wasn’t mutinous, do you take this opportunity to run? For free African Americans, do you fight for the place where you live, but still wants to enslave people? Free blacks, in general, still had to abide by the same curfews and restrictive laws that applied to the enslaved; they only had the right to own and protect their property.

Within weeks, hundreds of former slaves escaped and were organized into Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment. It fought in skirmishes in present-day Virginia Beach and Chesapeake and wore shirts embroidered with the motto “Liberty to Slaves.”

Meanwhile, Billy Flora, a free African American, fought against them when he joined a local militia.

“Both were fighting for the same thing – liberty,” Gruber said. “But, to each, it meant different things.”

Even George Washington, commander of the Continental Army, lost 17 of his enslaved when they hopped on a British ship that docked near his Mount Vernon plantation.

Thousands of Africans Americans became involved in the war, although there aren’t definitive figures on how many fought for the British or with the Continental Army, Gruber said.

The Continental Army eventually had a mix of integrated infantry units and all-black regiments; blacks were also used in support roles on both sides as cooks and workers. Slave owners who were drafted were also allowed to pay and have their enslaved fight in their place. The same would happen in the Civil War.

During the war, slaves continued to escape to the British side, including 87 people from the Norfolk plantation of John Willoughby. Willoughby was a strong supporter of the British crown.

Among the escapees were Mary Perth and her family, which made their way to New York.

In April 1776, Perth’s name appears on a list submitted by Willoughby’s son who petitioned the Virginia legislature for compensation for his lost property.

The original document is one of the artifacts on view.

Perth’s name appears later on two other rare loans to the museum, the American “Inspection Roll of Negroes No. 1” and the British “Book of Negroes.”

The two books would have last been together in 1783 in New York after the signing of the Paris Peace Treaty that ended the war. Article 7 of the treaty stated that the British couldn’t take any of the formerly enslaved people with them. The British ignored the stipulation and stated that they were keeping their word to the African Americans who supported them.

The two books were the American and British tally of the families leaving America. Perth’s family was among the 3,000 who left and were settled in Nova Scotia.

A portion of the gallery is meant to be a spot for contemplation, and it includes the work of Kaphar.

The space is dominated by the “Forgotten Soldier,” a three-dimensional sculpture that reaches 8 feet high. The well-known silhouette of Gen. George Washington is carved into its center and covered by glass. An unnamed African American soldier is etched on its front.

It isn’t often that a history museum commissions contemporary work, Gruber said, but Kaphar also preached the importance of people “shifting their gaze” in a popular 2017 Ted Talk that has more than 1.5 million views.

During the talk, Kaphar displayed his reproduction of 1648 portrait by Dutch painter Frans Hal. The painting, “Family Group in a Landscape,” shows a smiling, wealthy white family in a field. Among them is an unsmiling black boy who blends in with the foliage.

As he talks, Kaphar paints over the face of each family member.

“Historically speaking,” he says, “I can find out more about the lace that this woman is wearing than I can about this character here.”

He gestures to the boy, who finally emerges from the canvas as the others are subdued. A copied portion of the portrait is included in the Yorktown exhibition.

“It is a way to direct your eye in a different direction,” Gruber said. “We want people to make an emotional connection with this exhibition.”

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