Project aims to identify blacks who fought in Revolution
BOSTON --Thousands of black men fought for American independence during the Revolutionary War, yet their contributions to the nation's freedom are for the most part unrecognized and rarely appear in modern history books.
Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and the Sons of the American Revolution are hoping to change that by undertaking an ambitious project to identify those soldiers, and then find their descendants.
"My first goal with this project is to enhance the awareness of the American public of the role of African-Americans in the struggle for freedom in this country," said Gates, director of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard.
"Plus, my concern is that there are many people walking around, like me, who had no idea that I had an ancestor who fought in the Revolution," he said.
It was that revelation which inspired Gates to launch the project.
Gates learned of his family history during filming of the PBS documentary series "African American Lives," which used DNA testing and genealogical research to investigate the ancestry of notable black Americans.
Genealogist Jane Ailes revealed to Gates -- executive producer of the series that first aired in February -- that his fifth great-grandfather on his mother's side was John Redman, a farmer from Williamsport, Va. (now part of West Virginia), who for four years fought with the 1st Virginia Light Dragoons during the Revolution.
Joseph W. Dooley, the chairman of the Sons of the American Revolution's membership committee, wants to identify as many people as possible who contributed to the Revolutionary War effort whose sacrifices "are not appreciated and not recognized," he said. Though he's starting with blacks, he envisions future projects to track the contributions of women and Native Americans to the war effort.
An estimated 5,000 blacks fought for independence during the Revolution.
"It's not recognized by most Americans that perhaps as much as 10 percent of George Washington's troops were black," Dooley said. "It's reasonable to say that the contribution of blacks in the American Revolution was indispensable."
Ailes, the Virginia-based genealogist, plans to look over 80,000 pension applications for Revolutionary War soldiers, and compare those names against the federal census records, which often contained information on race.
In just the few weeks since the project was launched, Ailes said she has already identified more than 20 people who may have served in the Revolutionary War, including an escaped slave who changed his name and joined the Continental Army.
The project, funded by Harvard and Sons of the American Revolution, could take years to complete.
Once the first portion of the project is completed, the researchers will publish the results and hope that the descendants of Revolutionary War soldiers come forward. Those descendants will then be eligible to apply for membership in the Sons of the American Revolution or the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Both lineage organizations are overwhelmingly white. Of nearly 27,000 members of Sons of the American Revolution, less than 30 are black, said Jim Randall, executive director and chief executive of the Louisville, Ky.-based organization.
Of 165,000 Daughters of the American Revolution members, only about 30 are black, Dooley said.
Membership in either group requires unimpeachable documentation, and this project could pave the way for potentially thousands of new members.
"This initiative is an opportunity to assist individuals in their quest to become members of the SAR," Randall said. "We want to recognize all Patriots who served.
"There's also an opportunity here for some significant research, to uncover more accounts of bravery and courage during that period, and more information on what happened at that time."
Gates was inducted into the Sons of the American Revolution earlier this month at a ceremony in Texas, and several other members of his family are awaiting membership approval or plan on applying. He said it was something he had dreamed of since reading DuBois's "Dusk of Dawn."
DuBois, a Massachusetts-born black activist of the early 20th century, had been admitted to the organization's state chapter, but was rejected by the national organization because he could not provide the proper documentation.
"I envied him for having the knowledge that he could make that claim, but I never thought I'd be standing up there," Gates said. "It was a great honor and very exciting to pay homage to my ancestor. He risked his life to fight for the freedom of this country."
On the Web: Sons of the American Revolution, http://www.sar.org
Daughters of the American Revolution, http://www.dar.org
Harvard's W.E.B. DuBois Institute, http://dubois.fas.harvard.edu