Bonnie Watson Coleman, a Democrat, represents New Jersey’s 12th Congressional District in the U.S. House.
Adding Juneteenth to the national calendar is a good step, but it ought to be a spur to reevaluate what we celebrate on Independence Day, too. While the Fourth of July is meant to be celebrated by every American, we rarely use that space to address the whitewashed retelling of the American Revolution. It is long past time the United States recognized the contributions of Black and Indigenous soldiers to the founding of the nation.
These troops represented one-quarter of the fighting strength of George Washington’s Continental Army by the march to victory in Yorktown in 1781. Yet while this fact is well known to historians, if not always highlighted in their work, the larger story of these soldiers is rarely taught in primary school classrooms. It would be unfortunate if bitter state-level debates about how to teach students about issues of race end up obscuring a more expansive, and accurate, account of the nation’s founding.
Initially, Gen. Washington rejected the use of soldiers of color, but he made an exception for the talented and racially integrated 14th Continental Regiment from Marblehead, Mass. Their skills were indispensable at key moments, such as the escape across the foggy East River in New York in August 1776. These “Marbleheaders” were experienced mariners and fishermen who had the necessary skills and strength to ferry 2,400 troops and their cannons, guns and horses in the famous crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas Night 1776.
During the initial years of the war, Washington knew the drive for independence would quickly fail unless the army crossed the Delaware to earn its first victories on the battlefield. The soldiers were losing morale and their enlistments were about to expire.
Over 10 critical days, Washington won the important battles at Trenton and Princeton, N.J., dramatically raising the spirits of soldiers and Americans who supported independence. But he also recognized that the push for victory would require he expand recruitment to Black and Indigenous men. Without them, the war could not be won. On average, these men of color served more than eight times as long on the battlefield as White men.
One of the most capable regiments of the Revolutionary War was the majority-minority 1st Rhode Island Regiment. The 1st Rhode Island participated in the march from New England to Yorktown, Va., to win the final major victory of the war on Oct. 19, 1781.
When the troops passed through White Plains, N.Y., the aide-de-camp to the French general Rochambeau wrote in his journal that he “had a chance to see the American army, man for man.” He described them as “cheerful and healthy in appearance. A quarter of them were negroes.”
During the Revolutionary War, the American military was more integrated than it would be again until the 1950s. Yes, America’s founders utilized soldiers of color out of necessity rather than principle — but the contributions of these men were instrumental to declaring our independence and must be acknowledged as such.
And yet, the teaching of American history has at best omitted these vital contributions and at worst intentionally minimized them. An obvious place to start correcting the record is in our country’s classrooms. But we should also invest in existing resources such as the National Park Service’s Washington-Rochambeau trail, which passes through a dozen proud “founding cities” as it traces the path the French and American armies, including the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, took to their climactic confrontation with the British.
As we approach Independence Day, we must remember: Just as with other long-overdue forms of equality, an accurate historical record delayed is the truth denied. All Americans deserve a clear and honest understanding of our own past. All our ancestors deserve the credit they earned for their role in our national liberation and our country’s progress toward true freedom. As we watch the fireworks on the Fourth of July this year, we must remember the Black and Indigenous soldiers who helped light that spark for us in the first place, and the Black Americans who had to wait years for the spark to reach them.