The Bicentennial Edition is a special issue of 14 features commemorating the American Revolution Bicentennial in Pennsylvania, published June 1976.

Should it come as a surprise that no history of black Pennsylvanians in the American Revolution has been written? That the best modern study of the Negro in the American Revolution devotes less than four pages to his role in Pennsylvania? That the challenge to American historians to recover this aspect of the black past remains unmet at the time of the Bicentennial?

There are a number of reasons why the task of recon­structing this record is not an easy one. Many of the original documents in the hand of the Secretary of War were de­stroyed by fire on November 8, 1800, and again when government buildings in Washington were sacked or burned by the British in 1814. Fires, innocent or deliberate, made no distinction on account of color, but valuable evidence on black soldiers has been lost irretrievably.

Some estimates suggest that 5,000 men of African de­cent participated in the war that led to the founding of the United States. Others claim that ten per cent of the Continental Army was made up of blacks. With the implica­tions of such unsubstantiated numbers, and the informa­tion drawn from sources that escaped destruction, it is likely that the charges of racism made by Winthrop Jordan in his study, White Over Black, are applicable to this epoch in American history.

Calvin Goddard of Connecticut provided an example of this when he appealed under the act of 1818 for pensions of nineteen black soldiers of the revolution who had to pro­duce their own evidence of military service. Even though he was successful in obtaining pensions, one of the black soldiers, Primus Babcock, whose discharge was in the holograph of Gen. George Washington, scorned the pension rather than give up the precious document, the only proof of his military service.

Among the service entries that have survived, no one can fully determine who was the owner of the name when it was listed as “my Negro man” – the eighteenth century pejorative for nigger, or black men who were described as Cato, Cudjo and Cuffee, who will forever remain uniden­tified. The unknowns may have been heroes at the battles of Brandywine and Germantown, or they may have frozen to death at Valley Forge, or marched with Washington’s forces and crossed the Delaware on the road to victory. Presumption? No. There is ample evidence for those with Anglo-American names. Judge Joseph Hemphill of Pennsylvania recalled in 1820 that “The old citizenry of Philadelphia to this day remember the fact, that when the troops of the North marched through the city one or more colored companies were attached to nearly all the regiments.” Pennsylvania pension lists mention John Francis of the Third Pennsylvania Regiment, Captain Epple’s Com­pany, who “had both legs shattered by grape shot at [the] Battle of Brandywine on 11th of Sept. 1777.” Peter (Philip) Field froze to death at Valley Forge; Barzilai Lew, drummer and fifer, survived the winter that Field did not, and fought his way through the war until Cornwallis sur­rendered. Oliver Cromwell, although not a native Pennsyl­vanian, was conspicuous on the Pennsylvania scene, he appears to have outlived all of his black fellow soldiers (he died in 1853). Cromwell marched with Washington from Brandywine to Princeton, he participated in the crossing of the Delaware River on the 25th of December, 1776, and was present at Yorktown. Washington signed his discharge.

To have been black, and to have been a soldier in the Revolution was a privilege ordained by two acts of fate: the inability to find enough white volunteers and attract recruits, and the legislation that kept slaves and free­men from fighting. Once practical needs overcame these barriers, blacks were inducted as carters and draymen, body­-servants and farriers. the first step to become full-fledged soldiers had been taken. Quakers, for example, who worked hard for the gradual emancipation of slaves since 1774, were prevented by conscience to urge the admission of blacks into an army, the purposes of which many were op­posed. Blacks however, preferred the emancipation offered them through service in the army, than the lengthy pro­cess of eighteenth century gradualism.

Freemen, like James Forten of Philadelphia, joined the navy as a powder-boy under Captain Decatur, while his father was admitted into the army. Young Forten was captured by the British with nineteen other black seamen, many of whom also came from Philadelphia, and were con­fined to the Jersey prison ship. These neglected examples are innumerable and only confirm the shaky status of historical research on the Negro in the American revolution. Subsequent neglect in the preservation of materials that could document the activity of a people, not just indivi­duals, in the task of establishing the black presence in the American Revolution has been increased. Even a recent history of the United States Army gives one line – not a sentence – to the role of black revolutionary soldiers. No matter how honestly one can argue that this is owing to the difficulty in locating material, one can argue that no serious attempt to do so has been made.

There are still other reasons to compound this dif­ficulty. Since 1789-1790, federal legislation. and also Pennsylvania law, as early as 1777, had limited the pri­vileges of enrolling in the militia to whites only. Every militia law that followed confined enlistment to whites. The war was over, the basic laws of the nation had been established, but black men were no longer wanted or required for the armed services. It was for this reason that some 2,500 Philadelphia Negroes were hindered in the organization of a Black Legion in the War of 1812. But their services were utilized to fortify Philadelphia against the British in spite of regulations. These men were the sons of revolutionary war soldiers who, in the words of Robert and William D. Forten, had not forgotten that “The Bones of our fathers have whitened every sanguinary field of the revolution … ”

The events of the War of 1812, the use of statements made by Washington during the revolution and Gen. Andrew Jackson on the bravery and fortitude of black soldiers in their command, inspired the first official recognition of the black man as a soldier in the armed forces of the United States.

In Pennsylvania, the Negro convention movement, begun in 1830, sought to extend the rights of black folk, and later to oppose an act of the Pennsylvania legislature that could and did deprive them of the franchise in 1838. Black leaders emphasized the role of black soldiers who fought in the American wars up to that ti me in the belief that it would reverse the views of the legislature. Their petitions, their statements, their evidence was ignored. Old soldiers of the revolution with furrowed black faces who came to Independence Hall to celebrate the Fourth of July were driven away by hostile crowds. In time of peace the war record of blacks was mocked and their identity was muted. Even that segment of the Pennsylvania press that opened its columns to black opinion and to favorable comment in the passing of black soldiers of the revolution has been neglected as an aid in recovering vital fragments of history so necessary for an understanding of this subject.

When William C. Nell and William Wells Brown, two ante-bell um black historians, began to assemble materials on the American Revolution, they set a foundation gradually built on by others. Neither Nell nor Brown, a former slave, had the opportunity for a systematic search of existing records. However, without their pioneer works, valuable information would have been lost.

An important revival of interest in the military history of the American Negro took place after the South had seceded and the arms of the Confederacy imperiled the nation’s capital. While historians from Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Rhode Island plunged into the work of reissuing the statements of Washington and Jackson im­mediately. To these were added the words of praise that had come from Lafayette and Greene. The fear was pre­sent that the South would use its slaves as Lord Dunmore had used them on the side of the British in the Revolution. Northerners, recalling the experiences of the Revolution, belatedly admitted Negroes into separate state regiments. The course of the war made imperative the recruiting of black troops. Every known act of black bravery in the Revolution was published, and pamphlets issued in the hundreds of thousands were distributed to make known the valor and patriotism of black soldiers. This was particularly true in Pennsylvania where recruitment became a major issue in 1863. For the first time in American history Negroes were organized under federal colors as bodies distinct from state regiments or private militia companies. But it was the heritage of the American Revolution that was most effective in its appeal to join the army, even before the promise of universal emancipation.

The documentary problem that has driven away timid investigators of blacks in the American Revolution is recognized, but identity with the black military past as a part of American history remains blurred. In an attempt to overcome this lacunae and reassess available materials in general terms, the National Portrait Gallery arranged a magnificent exhibition in 1973 which it called appropriately “The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution: 1770-1800.” It accomplished its purpose in describing through documents, artifacts, fine and graphic arts, the story of black soldiers and civilians in the founding of the United States. Much of the material deals with Pennsylvania where an extension of the same work remains to be done. The cycle of historical anonymity has ended. The Gatos, the Cudjos and Cuffees are no more. Barriers against blacks in the armed forces have been removed, but the history of black participation in Pennsylvania in the American Revolution awaits to be told. The Bicentennial demands it.


Space considerations prevent detailed documentation and this brief list is offered for supplementary reading and study.

Antibiastes [pseud.] Observations on the Slaves and Indentured Servants, enlisted in the Army, and the Navy of the United States (Philadelphia, 1777). Broadside of two pages urging the government to liberate slaves who were fighting in the war.

[Colored Citizens of Philadelphia] A Memorial to the Honorable Senate and House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. (Philadelphia, 1854).

Convention of People of Colour. Minutes of the Proceedings of the First Annual Convention of the People of Colour, Held by Adjournments in the City of Philadelphia, From the Sixth to the Eleventh of June, Inclusive, 1831 (Philadelphia, 1831). Also see, Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth Annual Conventions, 1832-1835.

Philadelphia Gazette, 1790-1830, is rich in references to Phila­delphia and Pennsylvania Negroes.

Quarles, Benjamin, The Negro in American Revolution (Chapel Hill, 1961). The only modern book dealing with this subject.

Turner, Edward, R. The Negro in Pennsylvania (Washington, D.C., 1911). More than sixty years after its publication, Turner’s original investigation remains unsurpassed.


Commissioner Maxwell Whiteman is the author of the standard bibliography of fiction by black Americans. His recent paper delivered before the genealogical section of the American Library Association has awakened national interest in the problems and methods of black genealogy, and his controversial essay on Jews and the slavery movement has attracted wide interest. He is the author of nine books on such diverse subjects as medicine, American Jewish history, early American industry and technology and Abraham Lincoln. His most recent book, Gentlemen in Crisis, The First Century of The Union League of Philadelphia, is described as the best club history to have been written. In addition to his contributions to scholarly journals he has written introductions to numerous reprints of works by early American black authors.