Started reading “Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America” by Douglas Egerton. The author of seven books, his latest is “Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America.”
Egerton is a terrific writer who looks at the early American world through the eyes of African Americans. We tend to think Civil Rights started in the 20th Century. Egerton reminds us this struggle is as old as the republic itself and even before.
In this one, the author looks at a handful of African Americans seeking emancipation. To me, the most fascinating one is Quok Walker. Like many other enslaved blacks, he held out the hope of being freed upon the death of his owner. In this case, his owner was James Caldwell, who ran a farm in Massachusetts. His widow remarried Nathaniel Jennison, who claimed Walker as his property. In 1781, when Walker escaped and ran to the Caldwell’s home, Jennison and a small posse found him and severely whipped and beat him.
Walked turned to the courts. He hired Levi Lincoln as his counsel and sued the state, saying Caldwell had promised him his freedom. The case went to the Massachusetts Supreme Court, who ruled in Walker’s favor. Chief Justice William Cushing said, "I think the Idea of Slavery is inconsistent with our own conduct & Constitution.”
Egerton points out actions like this one forced the northern states to eliminate slavery.
African Americans shined a light in many different ways. In 1768, William Lee, also known as Will and Billy, became the property of George Washington, who paid 61 pounds for him. Economists tell us comparisons are difficult but one convertor says the figure for 60 pounds is about $10,000.
Lee was Washington’s personal servant, constant companion riding with him on surveys and fox hunts, delivering messages, running errands to Alexandria, and traveling with him to Williamsburg, Philadelphia and New York when Washington became president in 1789. As such, Lee saw more of the young nation than most others.
And in that most rare of cases, Lee is seen in a portrait by John Trumball, taken of Washington in 1780.
What Egerton does with Lee is to show that while Washington took care of him, he remained unable to read or write. Many others suffered the same cruel fate. Without their written words, we are at a tremendous loss.
Another great African American pioneer was Absalom Jones, who was born into slavery in Delaware in 1746. He taught himself to read and then watched as his mother and father were sold off to Philadelphia. After Quakers donated money for his manumission, Jones built his own home and helped found the Free African Society.
Absalom Jones was typical of those blacks in the Chesapeake who became free in that his liberation resulted not from state action or white liberality but from his own hard work and determination.
As I learn more about African American history, I am seeing that rather than being passive bystanders, black Americans did everything they could do better their situations and fight for freedom.
In this vein, Hollywood has shown us some of these stories such as “12 Years a Slave” and “Birth of a Nation.” While certainly important stories, the violence and brutality of these films made them very difficult to watch.
Let’s hope in the coming years we will see the silver screen tell some stories like those of Quok Walker, William Lee and Absalom Jones, who used judicial action, dignity and personal fortitude and organizational building to find ways towards liberty.
After all, not all of the patriots were white.