Brothers in ArmsHarvey Bakari shares his passion for presenting the often forgotten stories of black Americans who contributed to the American Revolution. September 12, 2005
Lloyd Dobyns: Hi. Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present. We're on location today to about the contributions of enslaved and free blacks to the American Revolution. Colonial Williamsburg this October celebrates "Brothers in Arms," with a weekend of 18th-century military encampments, demonstrations, and character interpretations. I'm Lloyd Dobyns on history.org. Today I'm talking with Harvey Bakari about "Brothers-in-Arms" at Colonial Williamsburg. What are you going to do?
Harvey Bakari: Well, with "Brothers in Arms," what we normally do is present the perspective of the American Revolution from that of the African American soldier...some of them who are free blacks and some of them who are slaves. On one hand, you have one group of men who want to be subjects of the king by fighting for the British — Dunmore's Raw Ethiopian Regiment. On the other hand, you have another group of free blacks and slaves who are fighting to be citizens of the new country, if they win the war...those being some members of the Rhode Island Regiment.
Lloyd: In either case, you've got to win to get your way.
Harvey: Exactly. You have to win if you're going to be a free subject, to have the rights and privileges of a free subject, and if you're going to win with the Patriots, you would hope that the new country, as it forms, it will accept African Americans, or people of African descent, as citizens in the new nation, the new republic.
Lloyd: You mention the Ethiopian Regiment, after Lord Dunmore proclaimed that if they would fight for the British they would be free, and the Rhode Island Regiment fighting on the other side...were there any other fighting troops...Africans...on either side?
Harvey: Yes, there were plenty of others. For Brothers in Arms, those are the two that we focus on because of their Virginia connection. With Dunmore's Royal Ethiopian Regiment they were formed in Norfolk and they fought in Great Bridge and they were also in the Chesapeake. With the Rhode Island Regiment, they came from Rhode Island for that decisive siege of Yorktown in 1781. That's the reason we choose those two groups. Also because the Rhode Island Regiment was a majority black unit in 1778 as well as the Ethiopian Regiment was a majority black unit. Throughout the war, Washington's troops are sometimes referred to as "speckled troops," because they say wherever you see the Continental Army or Navy you will see people of African descent "speckled" throughout the army.
I could tell you about more blacks who fought for the British — one in particular is quite interesting...his name was Colonel Tye. Apparently, from the legend of Colonial Tye, [we know] he joined Dunmore's Proclamation, but then as Dunmore left the Chesapeake in '76, he went north with Dunmore. Colonial Tye ended up becoming a...to put it in short terms...a member of a black troop, and he was an assassin. He was assigned to assassinate specific Patriot figures and [during] the last assassination attempt he was wounded in his wrist and got gangrene, and he died. A lot of this information, for instance, is in the Historical Society of Canada.
Lloyd: Hmmm... I had not heard of that before.
Lloyd: For some reason, I thought early assassins were mostly in India.
Lloyd: Somebody coming to see Brothers in Arms...what do they look forward to? What do people say in the past ones...what have they asked you about? What are the reactions?
Harvey: Well, one that they come to see...is...the encampment, whether it's the encampment of the Ethiopian Regiment or the Rhode Island Regiment, they have the chance to interact with some of the re-enactors. With the Ethiopian Regiment, they get a chance to talk to the soldiers [and] to Governor Dunmore as to why he offered freedom to slaves. So, living history is a great way to learn history. They are able to do that and see demonstrations of the marching drills, firing drills, and learn how these men live.
But [you're] not only... dealing with the Ethiopian Regiment men, you're also dealing with women who are seeking their freedom...not bearing arms, but there were women who went to join the British. [These women] had children, infants as young as two months of age, who also wanted freedom and to become free subjects. So you see a little bit of that with the Ethiopian Regiment.
With the Rhode Island Regiment, of course, those are just males who are fighting in the Continental Army, you see an integrated unit and a lot of the questions that people tend to have are how did the black soldiers and white soldiers fight side by side with one another? Did the white soldier still see the black soldier as someone inferior — even though they are fighting for the same thing? Were they paid the same thing? How were they treated? Those are questions that people want to know. But most people are also just surprised. It's an event that many people feel comfortable bringing their families to because it's a part of our American heritage that for many Americans has been forgotten — the black patriots of the American Revolution. It becomes a sense of pride. People come and they can show their children that some of your ancestors fought for American freedom, and it's a sense of pride so they can walk away with something that makes them feel empowered and something that they can share with their children.
Lloyd: The questions they ask you...can you answer them for me? I'm curious, too. How does an integrated unit that no one knew anybody had in the 1770s and 1780s...do the whites and blacks get along?
Harvey: Well, we don't have very much information about that at this time, so we try to interpret to folks that yes, they're both fighting on the same side as soldiers, and we can only use historical conjecture and there's some camaraderie that comes about when soldiers fight together and you see someone die beside you. Obviously, [with] the act of fighting itself, one would imagine that you probably would be more concerned about your enemy than the skin color of the person beside you.
But, after the fighting, when it comes to rationing food or who is placed in this part of the encampment, that may become an issue. One thing that was really particular about the Rhode Island Regiment was that right before they came to Yorktown, they had been led by Colonel Green. Apparently, he had to take "the rap" for being a colonel who had all these Negroes in his regiment, using the 18th-century term. But Colonel Green also was being targeted by the patriots who wanted to "cut him down," and they did. The legend of the story is that as the British army was targeting Colonel Green...the legend is that about 14 black soldiers surrounded him. All of them died in the process of trying to defend Colonel Green. [The British] ...did, in fact, murder Colonel Green. It was a tragic event for the members of that Rhode Island Regiment, before they went to Yorktown in 1781, to lose Colonel Green. But also, just to show you that camaraderie — [those] 14 black men could have just left because Colonel Green was already dead, but I think they knew that the British wanted to take his body and mutilate it, so they tried to protect him, but they were wiped out.
Lloyd: That's a part of history nobody ever taught me.
Harvey: That's the big reaction that we tend to get at Brothers in Arms — why was I not taught this in school? I remember [at] one of the first ones we did there was a man who at first I thought was going to say he was angry. He was "...man, I'm really mad." And I thought, "okay, what did we do wrong that upset him?" He said "I'm really mad because I never learned this in school, and I'm 80 years old. They never taught me this. The only thing I knew about was Crispus Attucks, and Crispus Attucks, and that's all I knew. I never knew that black soldiers fought for American freedom!" That's one of the big reactions — overwhelming reactions — that we tend to get from our guests.
Lloyd: I got an e-mail a couple of weeks ago about Brothers in Arms, and the guy wanted to know exactly where you got your information about all of these units. I said, "I really don't know, but I bet you he's right." (Laughs) This is very well researched, isn't it?
Harvey: (Chuckles) Yes, it is. Dunmore's Proclamation...and also the events of Dunmore putting together this regiment...because there's no way in history...later on we could ignore it, but at that point when slave rebellion was the greatest concern of the colonists, that the action of Governor Dunmore arming 300 former slaves with muskets and a patch that says "Liberty to Slaves" on their shirts — that gets your attention.
Harvey: And that's what it was meant to do, historically, at that time. Historically, Dunmore thought once I do this, once I indicate to the people that I will use their slaves to fight against them, their former masters...what it did was force people who were sitting on the fence...they didn't know if they wanted to be Patriots or if they wanted to be Loyalists. But when Dunmore took that action, that was a decisive time for many people to decide, particularly here in Virginia, "I'm going to be a Patriot. There's no way I'm going to allow the governor to arm 300 Negroes to fight against us."
The other way one could look at it is that people may have said there's no way we're going to allow these blacks who fight for the British to become free subjects under the king, under the governor. Either way you choose to look at it, that's something that could not be ignored at that time. Governor Dunmore knew it. The British government knew it. They knew the Achilles heel of the colony was that you have all these people who are enslaved, who don't want to be slaves. And if you rise up, we will call upon those who are truly oppressed — not politically oppressed — but who are actually oppressed and have them fight on the side of the British in return for the most precious thing for them...freedom.
Lloyd: For the Ethiopian Regiment, that didn't turn out too well. What happened to most of the people?
Harvey: It all depends. You hear different historians say different things, particularly when it comes to those blacks who fought with the British. Well, even when historians talk about whites who fought with the British... it's kind of like...okay, you lost, so you're the loser...so we're going to say you made the wrong decision.
If one looks at what that enslaved person — whether it was a man in an Ethiopian Regiment or a woman who was a camp follower — if you look at what they left behind...a life of uncertainty, a life of being sold, a life where a woman gives birth to a child and doesn't know whether she'll be able to keep that child the rest of her life, a life where families can be separated...that's what they're leaving behind.
Just as Patrick Henry said, "give me liberty, or give me death," to me it appears that's the decision that they made. Give me liberty, or give me death is worth it to fight for liberty even if that means that some people died from small pox...who joined the Ethiopian Regiment or who joined Dunmore. There were a lot of tragedies. At the same time, anyone who fights for liberty, there's going to be some sacrifice to it. Some are going to make it; some are not.
With the Ethiopian Regiment, a few of those guys were captured after the defeat at Great Bridge. They were marched down the Duke of Gloucester Street in Williamsburg and held in the jail. As their punishment, they were sent to the lead mines. And we know now what happens if you send somebody to the lead mines. And others were sold to the West Indies. The ones who left with Dunmore and went to New York became part of the British units there. Some of the soldiers in the end ended up evacuating the United States with the British. Some of them in fact did become free subjects, just not in the United States.
Lloyd: And all this you can learn at the "Brothers in Arms."
Harvey: Yes.Lloyd: Brothers in Arms is October 8thand 9th. For more information, check history.org, where you'll also find more to download and hear. That's Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. Hope you enjoyed it.