I hope you are all enjoying your 4th of July weekend gluttony, cheap beer drinking, failed efforts at rutting, obligatory fireworks and patriotic proclamations. Independence Day is like all national holidays--a day to reinscribe sacred mythologies. One such mythology is that of Crispus Attucks, the first person to be killed by the British in what would become The War for American Independence.
Crispus Attucks is a great character in our national play. For Conservatives, low information real American types, the average lay person, Right-wing bloviators, and Constitutional fetishists, Attucks is proof positive that the country, and the framers, were not racist, and slavery a mere inconvenience in America's "exceptional" narrative. It would seem that in total, simple minds like simple stories.
For black Americans and their allies, Crispus Attucks is a martyr who can be channeled to demonstrate the quintessentially American nature of the black experience. Because whiteness remains interchangeable with "American," Attucks is a great counterweight. If the first American killed in the war to end British "tyranny" was black, what does that say about a narrative in which blacks folks are/were imagined as perpetual outsiders?
Moreover, what of inconvenient facts? For example, more blacks fought for the British than the Continentals. With the former promising manumission, and the later hypocrites on their failure to reconcile their own high minded virtues of liberty and democracy with the perpetual bondage of many thousands, the choice seemed a logical one. And lest there be any confusion, African American Loyalists and Continentals were both engaged in a grand freedom struggle for their people.
One of my favorite little known African American heroes who happened to fight for the British is the legendary Colonel Tye. A former slave, he put the fear of God in white Continentals throughout New Jersey and New York. Sadly, Colonel Tye will never get his own movie because Americans across the color line prefer their stories of black liberty and freedom to be portrayed in simplistic terms.
This Brother was no joke. Read on:
Colonel Tye, the most feared and respected guerrilla commander of the Revolution, was one of the many enslaved Africans who escaped and fought for the British.
Known in his youth as Titus, he was one of four young men owned by John Corlies of Shrewsbury, in the eastern part of Monmouth County, New Jersey. Shrewsbury Quakers, under increasing pressure from their Philadelphia-influenced counterparts to the west, finally began to end slavery among themselves in the 1760s. Corlies did not follow the local practice of educating his slaves or of freeing them on their 21st birthdays, and by 1775, he was one of the few remaining Quaker slaveholders in Monmouth County.
In November 1775, the day after Dunmore's Proclamation was issued, 22-year old Titus fled from his cruel, quick-tempered master, joining the flood of Monmouth County blacks who sought refuge with the British as soldiers, sailors and workers. Titus changed his name, gaining notoriety three years later as Captain Tye, the pride of Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment.
While not formally commissioning black officers, the British army often bestowed titles out of respect, and Tye quickly earned their respect. In his first known military incursion, the June, 1778 Battle of Monmouth (in which not a single black from the county fought for the patriots), Tye captured a captain in the Monmouth militia.
In July, 1779, Tye's band launched a raid on Shrewsbury, and carried away clothing, furniture, horses, cattle, and two of the town's inhabitants. With his "motley crew" of blacks and white refugees known as "cow-boys," Tye continued to attack and plunder patriot homes, using his knowledge of Monmouth County's swamps, rivers and inlets to strike suddenly and disappear quickly. These raids, often aimed at former masters and their friends, were a combination of banditry, reprisal, and commission; Tye and his men were well-paid by the British, sometimes earning five gold guineas.
During the harsh winter of 1779, Tye was among an elite group of twenty-four black Loyalists, known as the Black Brigade, who joined with the Queen's Rangers, a British guerrilla unit, to protect New York City and to conduct raids for food and fuel.
By 1780, Colonel Tye had become an important military force. Within one week in June, he led three actions in Monmouth County. On June 9, Tye and his men murdered Joseph Murray, hated by the Loyalists for his summary execution of captured Tories under a local vigilante law. On June 12, while the British attacked Washington's dwindling troops, Tye and his band launched a daring attack on the home of Barnes Smock, capturing the militia leader and twelve of his men, destroying their cannon, depriving Washington of needed reinforcements, and striking fear into the hearts of local patriots.
In response, Governor Livingston, who had tried two years before to abolish slavery in New Jersey, invoked martial law -- a measure which proved totally ineffective -- even as large numbers of blacks, heartened by news of Tye's feats, fled to British-held New York.
In a series of raids throughout the summer, Tye continued to debilitate and demoralize the patriot forces. In a single day, he and his band captured eight militiamen (including the second in command), plundered their homes, and took them to imprisonment in New York, virtually undetected and without suffering a single casualty.
In September, 1780 Tye led a surprise attack on the home of Captain Josiah Huddy, whom Loyalists had tried to capture for years. Amazingly, Huddy and his friend Lucretia Emmons managed to hold off their attackers for two hours, until the Loyalists flushed them out by setting the house afire. During the battle, Tye was shot in the wrist, and days later, what was thought to be minor wound turned fatal when lockjaw set in.
After Tye's death, Colonel Stephen Blucke of the Black Pioneers replaced him as leader of the raiders, continuing their attacks well after the British defeat at Yorktown. Tye's reputation lived on, among his comrades as well as the Patriots, who argued that the war would have been won much sooner had Tye been enlisted on their side.