Read the Revolution
Standing in Their Own LightJune 23, 2021
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In Standing in Their Own Light: African American Patriots in the American Revolution, Judith L. Van Buskirk draws on Revolutionary War pension records to bring to life the thousands of African American men and women who joined the Revolutionary cause. She reveals how after the war, Black veterans claimed an American identity based on their willing sacrifice on behalf of American independence. And American abolitionists, citing contributions of Black soldiers, adopted the tactics and rhetoric of revolution, personal autonomy, and freedom.
As part of her detective work to uncover the lives and experiences of these unsung heroes, Van Buskirk interprets pension records and legal documents including state constitutions. Read two excerpts to learn the story of Elizabeth Freeman, or “Mumbet,” who used the words of the new Massachusetts state constitution to sue for her freedom in 1781 and how her example connected with experiences of Black veterans (and their families) from the battlefield to the courtroom before and after the 1818 Pension Act.
Great Barrington, Massachusetts: Mumbet
“Any time, any time while I was a slave, if one minute's freedom had been offered to me, and I had been told I must die at the end of that minute, I would have taken it-just to stand one minute on god's [earth] a free woman, I would.” So said an elderly former slave from western Massachusetts who helped Quock Walker push the state's authorities to truly acknowledge their own constitution. Her battle started when Elizabeth, known affectionately as Mumbet, was a much younger woman. At age thirty-six, the widow of a Continental Army soldier, she was a slave, the legal property of John Ashley, a judge and major landowner in Berkshire County. In 1781 she asserted her freedom in a Massachusetts court. Interviewed decades after the trial, Mumbet claimed that the words of the revolutionary movement had induced her to sue for her freedom. Although she did not mention the Sheffield Resolves—the anti-British manifesto of rights, drawn up in Sheffield, Massachusetts, on January 12, 1773—she did work in a house where conversations about its concerns raged. Words such as "equal,” free,” and "independent" bounced off the walls of her master's home. "God and nature have made us free,” the Resolves declared. More inspiring still were the words of the 1776 Declaration of Independence, although the most pertinent document to Mumbet's case proved to be the same Massachusetts Constitution referenced in Quock Walker's case. As her biographer Catharine Sedgwick (who was brought up by Mumbet) said, "Such a resolve as hers is like God's messengers—wind, snow, hail—irresistible.”
Like Walker, Mumbet needed white allies. A prominent lawyer and militia officer, Theodore Sedgwick, took on her case. Just one month before Quock Walker's original motion, Mumbet and Sedgwick, along with legal scholar Tapping Reeve, started the process that resulted in Brom and Bett v. Ashley. (Referring to another of Ashley's slaves, Brom's name might have been added to prevent the court from throwing out an individual woman's suit).
The court's decision came in August, two months after the first Walker cases (of which there were three). Although the jury found for Brom and Bett, no trial transcript revealed the legal rationale for its decision. What distinguishes Mumbet's case from Walker's is the fact that no distracting issues like a previous deal with a master clouded the picture. Mumbet simply claimed that she was free. The only way the jury could find for Mumbet was to turn to the state’s constitution. But no formal court document said this. Mumbet’s master promised to appeal. Two months later, Ashley dropped the idea, probably because news of the Jennison v. Caldwell case had convinced him that a favorable conclusion to his own suit would be highly unlikely. Although not publicized in the press, Ashley saw the writing on the wall. After the trial, Mumbet acquired a surname, Freeman. She went to work for her former attorney, Sedgwick, and, along with raising a child of her own, brought up Catherine Maria Sedgwick, who would become a noted novelist and would later record Elizabeth Freeman’s version of the case.
Both Quock Walker and Elizabeth (Mumbet) Freeman availed themselves of blacks' access to the court system in Massachusetts and undoubtedly drew inspiration from the African Americans before them who had petitioned the government and taken their masters to court with positive results. Although there were no banner headlines about the demise of slavery in Massachusetts, both the Mumbet and Walker cases were part of a trend in that direction. Word of these positive developments could well have circulated among the soldiers. Agrippa Hull and Frank Duncan, both from Stockbridge, Massachusetts, enlisted into the continental line. Humphrey Hubbard, a black private, served in the militia regiment headed by Colonel John Ashley, Mumbet's owner. A man from a nearby town, James Storm, was recruited into the army by Theodore Sedgwick, Mumbet's attorney. Although it is unlikely that these black recruits had received news of the court case from these elevated personages, they could well have heard about the Mumbet and Quock Walker cases from other Berkshire County soldiers who brought word of local doing to the army. At the main army headquarters in the Hudson Highlands, companies from other states worked right beside the Massachusetts soldiers. It is likely too that black men formed a special line of communication based on skin color. In 1780 soldiers in the Pennsylvania line had their own great news to spread concerning an event that clearly spelled the end of slavery in their state.
On March 1, 1780, the Pennsylvania assembly passed An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery. The law’s opening section expressed empathy with the enslaved population by dint of the enslavement that Philadelphia had suffered during the British occupation of the city.
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In a way that they never could have imagined before the war, a generation of African Americans who remained in this country could see the great leaders and themselves in the same sentence. They say in their pensions, “I fought at Burgoyne’s defeat” or “I manned a redoubt at the fall of Cornwallis.” Men who had been classed with boys and old men in the beginning of the war had become members of the elite units of the army. The adjectives change too. They are still “faithful but they are also “noble” and “worthy.” As “noble ruins of that splendid period,” their war service sometimes elevated them into heady company. Peter Jennings, a veteran of the First Rhode Island and one of the few black veterans to move to the western frontier, was acknowledged by General Lafayette when the famous general passed through Tennessee during his 1826-27 tour. Up in New England, Nancy Daley, daughter of veteran Cato Fisk, testified twice to help her mother obtain a widow’s pension. Nancy was not sure of the exact date of her father’s death, but she remembered that he died in the same week as a prominent local general—which would put her father’s death in March 1824. She distinctly remembered this connection because the following Sunday “the minister preached a sermon on their deaths and mentioned my father before he mentioned the General, and some people in the Parish were offended at it.” The minister, whose own father was a Revolutionary War veteran, had paired Nancy’s father with a general, resulting in a miffed congregation. The story represents a mixed legacy, but its hopeful side is surely in evidence. Liberation often begins with small stories. The pension reveals that Nancy could sign her name, indicating a certain degree of literacy that her father did not have. She also screwed up her courage and twice appeared in court to help her mother successfully obtain a widow’s pension. Could her veteran-father have envisioned this train of events? We don’t know. But his actions and the actions of thousands of other men of color inspired the next generation.
The old, undaunted warriors continued to fight well after the cannons were silenced on the battlefield. Although participants in the making of the country, most black veterans were still far away from the world they had dreamed of for their children. The applicants were still largely limited to jobs that paid a pittance. Jack Gardner, a three-year veteran in the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment, was described in 1818 as “a regular perambulator of our streets with wheel barrow and swill tub in search of daily food for himself and swine.” But while poor and limited by skin color in the new republic, he and other veterans became celebrities in their own communities, particularly when they aged. Countless neighbors in supporting affidavits testified that they had been listening to the veterans’ stories for decades. The veterans talked to their children too, and they could take satisfaction from the stride made by the next generation. The pension files reveal that more than half of the male children of these veterans could write their own names. Jeff Brace’s sons exhibited less patience than their father over injustices committed by white neighbors. These children joined others who gathered around the old veterans and took inspiration from their actions. Jeremiah Asher, a grandson of an African-born veteran, wrote his memoirs in 1850 as a way to trumpet the evils of slavery and raise money for his church in Philadelphia. The younger Asher characterized the Revolution as an “eventful period [that] will never be forgotten by us whose fathers fought for liberty, not from the yoke of Britain but from the yoke of American slavery.” William Wells Brown, the abolitionist-playwright-novelist, had two grandfathers in the war. W. E. B. Du Bois claimed Mumbet as an ancestor. Isaac Brown’s descendants fought in the Civil War through World War II. Each enlistment, like that of their Revolutionary War ancestor, was another claim on the nation’s promise of liberty and equality for all.
Judith L. Van Buskirk, Standing in Their Own Light: African American Patriots in the American Revolution (University of Oklahoma Press, 2017), 176-179, 230-232.
Read the Revolution is sponsored by The Haverford Trust Company.
Read the Revolution is published biweekly by the Museum of the American Revolution to inspire learning about the history of the American Revolution and its ongoing relevance.