There is a movement now under way to construct a memorial in Washington to black patriots of the American Revolution. If the sponsors get their way, the memorial will be built on land visible from the steps of both Constitution Hall (the meeting place of the Daughters of the American Revolution) and the Lincoln Memorial. These sites, tinged with irony, are key factors in the instigation of this project, second only to the bravery and deeds of the men and women who will be honored.
Between 1775 and 1783, more than 5,000 black slaves and free persons fought in the revolution. Serving side-by-side with whites in all of the major battles from Lexington and Concord to Yorktown, blacks were wounded, disabled and captured, just as were white patriots.
There were many heroes.
Most black patriots, regardless of when they enlisted, were in the war for the duration. That was generally the agreement they reached with their masters in exchange for personal freedom. And thousands of slaves ran away or filed petitions with courts and legislatures demanding their freedom. This activity weakened the institution of slavery and made a mockery of it. Responding to this black "declaration of independence" (as historian Benjamin Quarles refers to the Revolution), several New England and Middle Atlantic states, by the turn of the 19th century, had banned slavery; other states passed laws to make it easier to free slaves.
Families, churches and self-help organizations that black soldiers and freedom-seekers founded nurtured the struggle against slavery and became the rock upon which thern civil rights movement sits. Yet two generations after the revolution, these patriots and their deeds were erased from memory and degraded by discrimination against their descendants.
On April 9, 1939 -- 155 years after these black patriots returned home as free men and second-class citizens -- a chilly breeze whipping in from behind the Lincoln Memorial carried the words of the spiritual, "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" -- as if from generations beyond -- in the voice of black contralto Marian Anderson. Eyes closed and standing erect in front of the statue of Lincoln, she appeared to be almost in its embrace. The spiritual continued, "Nobody knows my sorrow."
A sea of 75,000 people stretched outward to the Washington Monument. The good will was flowing, the dignitaries were abundant. They came to listen to the voice that Arturo Toscanini said "one hears once in a hundred years" and to protest the fateful decision of the DAR to bar Anderson from the use of Constitution Hall for this Easter Snday concert.
A controversy of international proportions arose. America's affliction with racism and hypocrisy was laid bare before world opinion, much like South Africa's is today. The DAR was condemned, and people wondered how the republic could allow itself for so long to treat blacks -- even of Marian Anderson's stature -- as something less than Americans.
Unwittingly, the DAR (because it honors Revolutionary War patriots) made her a bridge between six generations of blacks who had struggled to win American independence and end slavery and the next two generations that would struggle to end segregation and discrimination. She returned to the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 to sing the national anthem during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the modern equivalent of a black "declaration of independence." But the irony of the 1939 concert and the DAR's action would not become apparent until 1984, when the DAR would again rebuff a black woman because of her race.
Last spring, when Lena Santos Ferguson's four-year struggle with the DAR over membership became public, it received national attention. Few people realized that any black woman could be a descendant of a Revolutionary War patriot.
Ferguson waged a quiet campaign to gain acceptance into a local chapter and to force the DAR to honor the role blacks played in winning American independence. On Feb. 28, 1984 -- 45 years and one day after Eleanor Roosevelt announced her resignation from the DAR in protest over its treatment of Marian Anderson -- Lena Ferguson was instrumental in getting the House of Representatives to pass a resolution (now Public Law 98-245) honoring the contributions of blacks to the American Revolution. The DAR passed a similar resolution last April.
When the pressure became too great and the DAR was finally ready to accept Ferguson into a local chapter, she refused to join unless they would agree in writing to bar discrimination in membership (which they will do this April) and to identify each and every black patriot who served in the American Revolution and to publish their names.
When Marian Anderson was introduced that Easter Sunday, credit for her being a free person was given to Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln. Now -- thanks to Lena Ferguson and contemporary black historians -- we know that substantial credit should go to the black patriots and freedom-seekers of the revolutionary period.
The memorial to them will tell us something about the trouble these patriots saw in their lifetimes, and how it inspired them to shape the struggle for freedom. Together with the memorial, the project being undertaken by the DAR will reveal hundreds of unknown heroes who will serve as an example and a reminder to Americans. And tens of thousands of their black descendants will be able to trace their ancestry back to the Revolution.
The memorial will be constructed entirely with private funds. Legislation authorizing its site, H.J. Res. 142, was introduced in the House last month by Reps. Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.) and Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), along with 70 cosponsors. Like Marian Anderson's concert of 1939 and appearance of 1963, the memorial will bring Americans of all races and religions together -- this time in a common understanding of our nation's racially diverse history.