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Recalling black role in Revolution

Blacks also sacrificed in the Civil War, for example, the 54th Massachusetts.

Library of Congress

Blacks also sacrificed in the Civil War, for example, the 54th Massachusetts.

Supporters of a plan to build a national ­memorial for African-Americans who fought for independence in the American Revolution, many of them enlisting from communities south of Boston, are hailing the recent passage of a federal bill approving the project.

The proposed memorial was included as an amendment to a defense spending bill approved by Congress and signed by President Obama earlier this month. It authorized the nonprofit ­National Mall Liberty Fund to establish a memorial near the mall to honor the African-Americans who fought for the United States during the ­Revolution, described by Liberty Fund founder Maurice Barboza as “the forgotten soldiers, patriots, and freedom seekers of the Revolutionary War.”

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Local black Americans said such a memorial would be a step forward in recognizing important black contributions to American independence, contributions too little known, even in some cases by them.

“The unfortunate part is there was very little of this talked about in history class,” said Betty Weeden, a lifelong resident of Plymouth. “. . . We do have to move forward. We have a black president.”

Cynthia Kaipu of Raynham said she was shocked to discover in her adulthood how little she knew about black participation in American history. “When I went to high school, there was no mention of black participation in the Revolution,” she said. “I was surprised they were there.”

Kaipu said it was “surprising and disappointing” to learn about the role of blacks in American history from the monument to the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the first all-black regiment to fight in the Civil War. She said that since seeing the monument on ­Boston Common she has learned a lot more about black contributions to US history.

Barboza, a black man with ancestors from Dedham and Westwood and a former congressional aide, said the proposed National Liberty ­Memorial will be built with private funds on park land in Washington’s “monumental core,” though not on the National Mall itself because of a moratorium on new building there. The memorial’s purpose would be to honor “the 5,000 to 10,000 enslaved Americans and free persons of African descent who volunteered to serve as soldiers and sailors during the American Revolution,” he said.

Barboza proposed the memorial after recent historical research identified the names of 5,000 black patriots, of which a remarkable 31 percent came from Massachusetts.

In the course of rediscovering his own diverse ancestry, Barboza, a Connecticut native, traveled to the Dedham Historical Society to use its archives. There he met Dedham historian Robert B. Hanson, from whom he received a book on the town’s early history.

Hanson said black participation in the ­Revolution “is something that has been long overlooked, which I think unfortunate.” After searching state historical records for information on Dedham’s black soldiers, he said, he knew that “the perspective of the scholarship lacked a piece of the puzzle.”

The research that identified by name some 5,000 black soldiers was conducted as a result of a court challenge by Barboza’s aunt, Lena Santos Ferguson, to the Daughters of the American ­Revolution’s exclusionary membership practices.

A settlement agreement reached in 1994 not only barred racial discrimination by the DAR but also required it to identify every African-American soldier who served in the Revolutionary War by paying for new research to find black soldiers in historical records.

That research was finally published in 2008. With new documentary evidence to show African-­American participation in the Revolution, Barboza launched the National Mall Liberty Fund DC Inc. to secure a site for a memorial.

“I think it’s an excellent idea,” said Jermain Corbin, an African-American and former Stoughton resident who teaches African-American history in a Boston exam school. “Something that’s forgotten is that more than 5,000 black soldiers participated in the American Revolution. They did it not only for material reasons, to get freedom from bondage, [but] a significant number of black soldiers who were free also participated as soldiers. Others, including black women, served as launderers and cooks.”

The DAR’s published list of black patriots ­includes 135 names from communities south of Boston. Bridgewater (which then encompassed what is now Brockton) had the highest total with 40. Twenty-six were from Plymouth, 10 from Middleborough, 10 from Scituate, 9 from ­Braintree, 8 from Hanover, and 5 each from ­Dedham and Stoughton.

Both Hanson and Dedham Historical Society librarian Sandra Waxman searched records to add to the picture of the five names from ­Dedham. Relying on a standard archival source titled “Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors in the Revolutionary War,” Hanson found that Thomas Ferret was mustered for duty in April 1775, when the British marched on Lexington and Concord and the shooting war between Patriots and ­Redcoats began. Cuff Freeman enlisted for three years in 1781.  

Peter (no surname found) was “a servant engaged to serve in the Continental Army for three years,” Waxman reported. Isaac ­Williams enlisted in 1775, but according to another listing in the book, a man of the same name described as “a mulatto” deserted a short time afterward.

Hanson’s knowledge of the town’s early history suggests the Cuff Sprague included in ­Dedham’s enlistment records may have been the “negro servant” of Dedham’s well-known Dr. Sprague. When this servant joined with Sprague’s permission, the master received his enlistment money. Hanson also suggests that Peter, who lacks a surname, could be Peter Tumbo, a black man who appears in town records in 1780.  

Seeking Massachusetts aid for his bill for the Liberty Memorial, Barboza received sponsorship from a number of the state’s congressmen, including US Representative William R. Keating, whose district includes many communities from which blacks enlisted.

“Memorials are in existence because we want to learn from our history,” Keating said in a ­recent interview. “I have a very strong feeling that [black patriots] were overlooked, and it’s another reminder that there were great contributions from African-Americans.”

A memorial could help Americans both black and white learn more about their history, he said.

Carver resident Jay John, an African-American of West Indian heritage, also believes that the memorial will encourage a more inclusive view of history.

“I think we should do as much as we can do to bring to light that everybody participated,” John said. “We will all become more enlightened as a result of that.”

Some memorial supporters — such as Natick resident Beverly Hector-Smith, whose ­Revolutionary-era ancestors lived in Braintree, Bridgewater, and Plymouth, among other towns — gained backing for a memorial by persuading local officials to send a resolution in support of the project to Congress.

“I grew up not knowing I had one Revolutionary War ancestor,” Hector-Smith said. But after doing research, “I found nine ancestors,” she said.

Barboza said last week that the next step to making the memorial a reality is to meet with the National Park Service to discuss the steps to ­obtain a site.

Robert Knox can be reached at rc.knox2@gmail.com.
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