As we celebrate America’s revolutionary independence from British colonial rule, we see it as our duty to honor the men and women that represented us through these battles and beyond, in order for Black people to gain our rights as human beings.
From being leaders on the forefront of battles, challenging white leadership through academics, and aiding soldiers and slaves to victory and freedom, here are 10 Black service members you should know.
Crispus Attucks (1723 – 1770)
Dubbed as “the first to defy, the first to die” by poet John Boyle, our first Black service member to remember is Crispus Attucks. He was born in Framingham, Massachusetts in 1723. An icon of the anti-slavery movement, he was a hero who defended the rights and freedom of his people. Attucks was on the front lines of a group of 50 patriots defying British troops during the Boston Massacre, and was the first person shot and killed with two bullets in the chest, becoming the first war hero in American history.
Crispus Attucks Represents 5,000 African American soldiers that fought for America’s independence.
Sojourner Truth (1797 – November 1883)
Known for her famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, Sojourner Truth challenged prevailing notions of gender and racial inferiority and inequality. Not only did she have the talent and drive for her charismatic speeches and lectures, but she was also an outspoken advocate for abolition, temperance, and civil rights. During the Civil War, she recruited Black soldiers to join the Union and lobbied for women’s rights, against segregation, and for reparations by providing land to former slaves.
Born into slavery, Isabella Bomfree escaped with her infant daughter to freedom in 1826. She pronounced that the Spirit called on her to preach the truth, thus adopting the name Sojourner Truth. As a true powerhouse as she continued to advocate for human rights for the rest of her life until she passed away in 1890.
Dr. Alexander Thomas Augusta (1825 – 1890)
Born in Norfolk, Virginia in 1825, Dr. Alexander Thomas Augusta broke down barriers for African American achievements and served the country bravely during the American Civil War. Augusta was the first out of eight Black officers in the war, then he was appointed as head surgeon in the 7th U.S. Colored Infantry. He was then promoted in 1865 to lieutenant colonel, becoming the highest-ranking Black officer in the U.S. military.
Augusta kept thriving post-military. He started his own practice in Washington, D.C. and became the first Black medical professor, and the first African American to be appointed to the faculty of Howard University. Hats off to Augusta for his service as a surgeon, veteran, and educator for the next generations of Black youth.
Phillis Wheatley (1753 – 1784)
Kidnapped and taken to Boston on a slave ship, Phillis was purchased as a personal servant for Susanna Wheatley. The Wheatley family provided education for her to read literature and study astronomy and geography. Beginning her journey on poetry at age 14, she wrote poems reflecting pride in her African heritage, her faith in religion, and more on reality and freedom. She supported patriots during the American Revolution, corresponding with British writers about the turmoil, and wrote a poem to George Washington, which led to an invition to meet him. Many colonists did not believe that an African slave was such an accomplished poet so in 1772, Wheatley defended her authorship of her poetry in court.
Though she was not on the battlefield, she served the country through her intellect and talent with words, her works left an impression that dispersed the seeds for the advocacy of abolition in America.
Susie King Taylor (1848 – 1912)
Another educated dynamo during the Civil War & Reconstruction period was Susie King Taylor. She was born a slave in 1848, and discreetly learned how to read and write from African American women educators in secret schools. In her lifetime, she was a teacher, a nurse, and an author. She served as a nurse for the 33rd U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment, and educated Black soldiers on reading and writing during her off-hours.
Susie was the first and only African American woman to publish an account of her experiences in the Civil War, Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33rd United States Colored Troops, Late 1st S.C. Volunteers
Peter Salem (1750 – 1816)
About 5,000 Black men served as patriots in the Revolutionary Army.
Among them was Peter Salem, born enslaved in Framingham, Massachusetts in 1750. Salem was emancipated by his owner, a patriot soldier, to enlist in his regiment of Massachusetts Minutemen. In his battles, he fought alongside white soldiers and a few other African American minutemen. Salem is credited with being the one to shoot British Major Pitcairn at Bunker Hill, which is depicted in the 1787 painting “The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill”.
Salem served during the American Revolution for four years and eight months, and upon becoming a civilian again, worked a hard life, struggling to earn a living for the rest of it.
Colonel Tye (1753 – 1780)
On the other side of the war, the British also had thousands of African Americans fighting on their side. The British recruited and rewarded Black loyalists for fighting, and were promised freedom in return.
Titus Cornelius was born into slavery in New Jersey and owned by a Quaker, from whom he escaped and joined the British forces in the Ethiopian Regiment. He also commanded the Black Brigade and led raids against American patriots, seized supplies, and assassinated patriot leaders. Adopting the name “Colonel Tye”, he was known for his leadership and fighting skills, as he was one of the most feared guerrilla leaders that opposed the American patriots in New Jersey. Tye died from tetanus and gangrene infections from a wound he suffered in a raid during battle.
Benjamin Banneker (1731 – 1806)
Similar to Phillis Wheatley, Benjamin Banneker was not in the front lines of battle, but rather was a force that challenged American leaders on the issues of slavery and racism.
Banneker was born free, and inherited the farm he was raised in from his father. A self-educated man, he was keen on mathematics, astronomy, and an author for series of almanacs. Banneker’s legacy was corresponding with Thomas Jefferson and challenging him on the topics of slavery and racial equality. He wrote Jefferson a public letter that called out the contradictions between the principles written in the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights, yet alongside the existence of slavery.
Thomas Jefferson saw Banneker’s intelligence as an exception rather than as an example of Black excellence. Regardless, Banneker worked to actively influence public opinion to promote abolition, sowing the seeds for abolition movements after the American Revolutionary Period.
William Jackson (Unknown – Unknown)
William Jackson served as a slave to Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederate States of America. As the former president discussed war plans and confederate military deployments, supply issues and planning, Jackson was observing and gathering information as he served them and performed tasks in the household, being ignored and assuming that he would not understand nor care about their discussions.
He funneled all the information he gathered and when he escaped in 1861 provided the information to the Union intelligence. Jackson was a hero as he perfectly infiltrated the inner sanctum of the enemy and extracting the most guarded secrets of the Confederacy.
Harriet Tubman (1820 – 1913)
Last and most definitely not the least, we honor and remember the great Harriet Tubman. Born in Maryland and named Araminta Ross in March of 1822, she was born into slavery and escaped to Philadelphia. Most known for her Underground Railroad network, to which she emancipated about 300 slaves, never losing a passenger nor running the train off track.
When the Civil War broke out, Harriet recruited fugitive slaves at Fort Monroe and assisted them as a nurse, cook, and laundress. In 1863, she became head of a scout network and was a spy for the Union army, and gave intelligence to commanders about the Confederate Army supply routes and troops.
Harriet Tubman was an abolitionist, a nurse, a spy, a women’s rights advocate, and most of all, a force to be reckoned with!