J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, July 21, 2006

Skip Gates's new initiative over old ground

Coinciding with his own induction as a member of the Sons of the American Revolution, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has announced an initiative to identify black soldiers who fought on the American side of the Revolutionary War. His goal, the Associated Press quotes him as saying, "is to enhance the awareness of the American public of the role of African-Americans in the struggle for freedom in this country." The research will be funded by Harvard's DuBois Institute, which Gates heads, and the Sons of the American Revolution, which has a natural reason for identifying all descendants of Continental Army soldiers.

This effort strikes me as worthy but not newsworthy. First of all, the newspaper dispatch's claim that African-Americans' "contributions to the nation's freedom are for the most part unrecognized and rarely appear in modern history books" must be based on very old history books. Even the 1990s cartoon show Liberty's Kids included a black worker and soldier, Moses, among its regular characters. Activists and historians have been studying African-American soldiers in Washington's army since Boston's own William C. Nell published The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution in 1855. And apparently the motivation for that research hasn't changed after 150 years; it's still aimed at making a political point about "contributions to the nation's freedom" from black Americans rather than learning about the past on its own terms.

Secondly, emphasizing the American side leaves out the bulk of black combatants in the war. As Skip Gates surely knows from such academic and television colleagues as Simon Schama, many more North Americans of African descent fought or supported the Crown side of the war, particularly in the southern campaigns. As with the Black Revolutionary War Patriots Memorial proposed for Washington, D.C., (prototype by sculptor Ed Dwight shown above), this effort is about heritage rather than history. It's about making people today feel good, not about making us understand the past more completely and accurately.

Thirdly, for the Boston theater, the historical research that Gates and the SAR have initiated—looking at pension records—was already done by George Quintal, Jr., for his National Park Service report "Patriots of Color: 'A Peculiar Beauty and Merit': African Americans and Native Americans at Battle Road and Bunker Hill".

What's new is tracking down the descendants of the Revolutionary veterans. That seems to be the main result of this study. There's no hint of publishing a database of African-American soldiers or analyzing the data to learn more about them as a group. Instead, according to the press release posted at the History News Network, "Once the research is complete, the Du Bois Institute and the SAR will advertise for descendants of these individuals and invite them to apply for membership in the SAR or the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR)."

Where I come from, we call that "market research."

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