No one knows exactly what was going through Peter Salem's mind on that April morning 227 years ago. Salem was a Minuteman, an American colonist prepared to fight with just a minute's notice. In the spring of 1775, he got his chance. On April 19 he watched as more than 600 red-coated British soldiers, armed with bayonets, marched toward him in Lexington, Massachusetts.
Blood was about to be spilled in the American Revolution.
Salem's was a black face in a sea of white faces. But he wasn't the only African American there that day. Cuff Whitemore was there, too. And Prince Easterbrooks, who would go on to fight in nearly every major battle of the war.
From the first shots at Lexington and Concord to the British surrender at Yorktown, African Americans were present in every major battle of the Revolution. It's a part of history many people don't know about.
"Blacks have been involved since the beginning, and are co-founders of the country, whether they were free or slaves," said Mark Gresham, head of the Black Patriots Foundation, a group working to build a memorial in Washington to honor these unsung heroes.
Gresham said that an estimated 5,000 African Americans fought in the Revolution to free the colonies from British rule. Some, like Peter Salem, were freemen. Others were slaves whose masters promised them freedom if they joined the army.
They all must have seen how unfair it was: While the Declaration of Independence said "All men are created equal," that didn't apply to blacks. Slavery existed in every American colony.
"They were fighting for freedom: their own freedom," said Clifton H. Johnson, the founder of the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana.
George Washington hadn't wanted to allow blacks into the Continental Army, but in 1775 Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, offered freedom to any slaves who joined the loyalist cause. Dunmore's proclamation forced Washington's hand. African Americans were allowed to fight for the colonies' freedom.
"Some acted immediately to go with the British, but most stayed because it was their country they were fighting for," said Gresham. "Yes, it was their adopted country, and they'd been put upon and forced to come, but it was still their country."
(And what of those who fought for the British? After the war some were returned to their masters. Some retreated with British forces, settling in Canada or the Caribbean.)
Peter Salem fought until the end of the war. Some historians think it was his musket ball that mortally wounded British Major John Pitcairn in the Battle of Bunker Hill, allowing the Americans to retreat. After he left the army, Salem married a woman named Katy Benson and returned to Massachusetts, where he became a successful furniture maker.
Black patriots helped win the war against the British, but they did something else, too. After the war, slavery was gradually outlawed in the North. Many historians credit that to the contributions made by black soldiers, who proved by fighting alongside their white neighbors that they were equal, too.
-- John Kelly
This model shows part of the proposed memorial.