5 Lesser-Known Black Heroes Who Helped Shape American Independence

Wheatley became the first African American woman to publish a book of poetry, “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral,” in 1773.
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American independence is often associated with well-known figures like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin. However, numerous lesser-known heroes, particularly African Americans, played pivotal roles in shaping the nation’s fight for independence.

Their contributions, often overlooked in mainstream historical narratives, were crucial in the struggle for freedom. This article highlights five such black heroes whose bravery, intelligence, and resilience significantly impacted the quest for American independence.

1. Crispus Attucks: The First Martyr of the American Revolution

Crispus Attucks is widely recognized as the first martyr of the American Revolution. Born around 1723, Attucks was of African and Native American descent. He worked as a sailor and a rope maker in Boston, where tensions between British soldiers and colonists were escalating.

On March 5, 1770, Attucks found himself at the center of a confrontation between colonists and British soldiers, later known as the Boston Massacre. As tensions flared, shots were fired, and Attucks was the first to fall, becoming a symbol of the colonial struggle against British oppression.

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The deaths of Attucks and other colonists sparked outrage throughout the colonies and became a rallying cry for the growing movement for independence. His story serves as a potent reminder of the sacrifices made by Black people in the fight for American liberty.

2. James Armistead Lafayette: The Spy Who Helped Win Yorktown

James Armistead Lafayette played a crucial role as a spy for the American forces during the Revolutionary War. Born into slavery in Virginia around 1748, Armistead’s intelligence and bravery caught the attention of Marquis de Lafayette, a French officer aiding the American cause.

Posing as a runaway slave, Armistead infiltrated British camps, gaining the trust of General Cornwallis and Benedict Arnold. He gathered vital information about British troop movements and strategies, which he relayed to American forces.

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His intelligence was instrumental in the American victory at the Battle of Yorktown, which was a decisive turning point in the war. After the war, Armistead was granted his freedom by the Virginia legislature in 1787 and took the last name Lafayette in honor of his commander.

3. Peter Salem: The Hero of Bunker Hill

Peter Salem was a former slave who became a celebrated soldier in the Continental Army. Born in Massachusetts around 1750, Salem gained his freedom and joined the militia, later enlisting in the Continental Army. His bravery was most notably displayed at the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775.

During the battle, Salem fought valiantly and is credited with the decisive shot that killed Major John Pitcairn, a prominent British officer. This act of heroism was widely recognized and celebrated, underscoring the vital contributions of African American soldiers in the fight for independence.

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Image credit American Battlefield Trust

Salem continued to serve throughout the war, participating in key battles and leaving a lasting legacy of courage and dedication. His dedication to the cause of liberty extended beyond the battlefield. He actively participated in the abolitionist movement and fought for equal rights for Black Americans.

4. Phillis Wheatley: The Poet Who Inspired a Nation

Phillis Wheatley, though not a soldier, made a significant impact through her powerful poetry. Born in Senegal, West Africa, around 1753, Wheatley was enslaved and brought to Boston. Despite the harsh conditions of slavery, she displayed remarkable intellectual abilities and was taught to read and write by her owners.

Wheatley became the first African American woman to publish a book of poetry, “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral,” in 1773. Her work garnered international attention, challenging the perception of Black intellectual capabilities and sparking conversations about slavery.

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She earned recognition from prominent figures like George Washington. Wheatley’s poems often reflected themes of freedom and human dignity, inspiring both colonists and future generations to fight for justice and equality.

5. Deborah Sampson: A Soldier in Disguise

Deborah Sampson, born Deborah Gannett, defied gender norms and racial prejudice to fight for her country. Disguised as a man under the alias “Robert Shurtliff,” Sampson enlisted in the Continental Army in 1782.

She served with distinction for over a year, enduring harsh conditions and participating in several battles, including the brutal Yorktown campaign.

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Sampson was eventually discovered to be a woman, but her bravery and dedication earned her the respect of her fellow soldiers. Despite initial concerns, General George Washington acknowledged her service and awarded her an honorable discharge.

Deborah Sampson’s story highlights the lengths to which individuals were willing to go to fight for freedom, regardless of race or gender.

Conclusion: A Legacy of Courage and Perseverance

These five stories offer a glimpse into the diverse contributions of Black heroes to the American Revolution.

Their bravery, resilience, and dedication to liberty challenge the traditional narrative of the war and highlight the importance of inclusivity in historical understanding.

Their stories inspire us to continue the fight for a more just and equitable society, where the ideals of liberty and freedom truly apply to all.

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Read this article to uncover the origins, themes, and examples of Afrofuturism.

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