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7 Black Heroes of the American Revolution

February 11, 2020 in History

By Colette Coleman

They include a spy, a poet, a guerrilla fighter—and foot soldiers who fought on both sides of the war.

During the American Revolution, thousands of black Americans jumped into the war, on both sides of the conflict. But unlike their white counterparts, they weren’t just fighting for independence—or to maintain British control. In a time when the vast majority of African Americans lived in bondage—their forced labor fueling the economy of the fledgling nation—most took up arms hoping to be freed from the literal shackles of chattel slavery. In fact, when enslaved people had choice in the matter, according to historian Edward Ayres of the American Revolution Museum in Yorktown, Virginia, they signed on with whichever side seemed most likely to grant them personal freedom.

Black Patriots: Heroes of the Revolution, a documentary from executive producers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Deborah Morales, premieres Feb 19 at 10/9c on HISTORY.

For some slaves-turned-soldiers, the Revolution’s promise of liberty became a reality. But despite the patriots’ lofty rhetoric about liberty and justice for all, America’s war for independence didn’t herald widespread emancipation for enslaved people of color. America’s northern states didn’t pass laws to abolish slavery until 1804—and even then, some areas phased it out slowly. Southern states would cling to the brutal practice for more than a half-century longer.

Historians estimate that between 5,000 and 8,000 African-descended people participated in the Revolution on the Patriot side, and that upward of 20,000 served the crown. Many fought with extraordinary bravery and skill, their exploits lost to our collective memory. Below are the stories of several exceptional African American figures—a martyr, a poet and a double agent among them—whose crucial contributions to the conflict have been remembered to history.

READ MORE: He Fought for His Freedom in the Revolution. Then His Sons Were Sold into Slavery

Crispus Attucks, Martyr

Crispus Attucks, whom many historians credit as the first man to die for the rebellion, became a symbol of black American patriotism and sacrifice. In 1770, as tension mounted between British and colonial sailors in Massachusetts ports, distrust and competition among them grew. These pressures came to a head on March 5th, when an angry confrontation turned into a slaughter known as the Boston Massacre.

Witnesses say that Attucks, a middle-aged runaway slave of African and native American descent, who worked as a sailor and a rope maker, played an active role …read more


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How Coffee Fueled Revolutions—And Revolutionary Ideas

February 11, 2020 in History

By Jessica Pearce Rotondi

From the Ottoman Empire to the American and French Revolutions, coffeehouses have offered a place for (sober) people to discuss new waves of thought.

Sultan Murad IV decreed death to coffee drinkers in the Ottoman Empire. King Charles II dispatched spies to infiltrate London’s coffeehouses, which he saw as the original source of “false news.” During the Enlightenment, Voltaire, Rousseau and Isaac Newton could all be found talking philosophy over coffee. The cafés of Paris sheltered revolutionaries plotting the storming of the Bastille and later, served as the place authors like Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre plotted their latest books.

History is steeped in ideas sparked over cups of coffee. Here’s a rundown of the revolutionary power of the commonplace café.

The First Coffee House Opens in the Ottoman Empire

An 18th-century Turkish coffee house.

Coffee houses began in the Ottoman Empire. Since liquor and bars were off-limits to most practicing. The defining feature of English coffee houses were communal tables covered with newspapers and pamphlets where guests would gather to consume, discuss and even write the news. “Coffeehouses were the motor of the news industry in 18th-century London,” Ellis explains.

King Charles II’s father, Charles I, had been decapitated during the English Civil War, so he was understandably paranoid about his subjects gathering to talk politics. On June 12, 1672, Charles II issued a proclamation to “Restrain the Spreading of False News, and Licentious Talking of Matters of State and Government,” which read in part: “men have assumed to themselves a liberty, not onely in Coffee-houses, but in other Places and Meetings, both public and private, to censure and defame the proceedings of State by speaking evil of things they understand not.”

To combat this “evil,” Secretary of State Sir Joseph Williamson embedded a network of spies in London coffee houses and in December of 1675, Charles II went as far as ordering the closure of all coffee houses in London. The ban lasted just 11 days. The people had spoken: Coffee was here to stay.

Coffee Houses Become Known as ‘Penny Universities’

The ban’s failure was history’s gain: The very type of open discussion Charles II feared led to the explosion of new ideas during the Enlightenment. In Oxford, locals had begun calling coffee houses “penny universities” because for the cost of a cup of coffee, you could gain access to intellectual discussions and, critically, sober debate. At a …read more