History books are replete with heroic stories of Washington, Jefferson, and Adams, but what of Allen, Russwurm, and Hawley? America’s Black Founders celebrates the lesser known but significant lives and contributions of our nation’s early African American leaders. Many know that the Revolutionary War’s first martyr, Crispus Attucks, a dockworker of African descent, was killed at the Boston Massacre. But far fewer know that the final conflict of the war, the Battle of Yorktown, was hastened to a conclusion by James Armistead Lafayette, a slave and spy who reported the battle plans of General Cornwallis to George Washington.
Author Nancy Sanders weaves the histories of dozens of men and women—soldiers, sailors, ministers, poets, merchants, doctors, and other community leaders—who have earned proper recognition among the founders of the United States of America. To get a better sense of what these individuals accomplished and the times in which they lived, readers will celebrate Constitution Day, cook colonial foods, publish a newspaper, petition their government, and more. This valuable resource also includes a time line of significant events, a list of historic sites to visit or explore online, and Web resources for further study.
About the Author
Nancy I. Sanders is the author of many books, including A Kid’s Guide to African American History and Old Testament Days.
Read an Excerpt
America's Black Founders
Revolutionary Heroes and Early Leaders with 21 Activities
By Nancy I. Sanders
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2010 Nancy I. Sanders
All rights reserved.
"When in the Course of Human Events ..."
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Richard Allen, stained glass window in Mother Bethel AME Church, Philadelphia. Courtesy of Mother Bethel AME Church
In 1760, Richard Allen was born. Not noticed by the world, far away from the royal palace in England, not even affected by the talk of freedom and liberty in colonial America, the news reached the ears of his mother's master in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: another slave had been born.
Richard's mother held him close, hoping against hope to shield her innocent baby from the harsh realities of slavery, that "peculiar institution," which supplied the rich treasures for the king and gave the colonists leisure to pursue their liberties in the New World. Yet slavery held no freedom or liberties for the slave.
As Richard's mother rocked her newborn baby to sleep, what thoughts crossed her mind? She knew too well of the slave's auction block where babies were torn from their mother's arms and sold away to a different owner, never to be seen again. Her own father, a white colonist, had sold her and her mother as if they were cattle.
As she counted her baby's 10 little fingers and 10 little toes, Richard's mother could not count on his future. It would have warmed her mother's heart, however, to know that one day her son would return to Philadelphia, the city of his birth, to become the greatest and most influential leader of free blacks in the newly formed United States of America. He would use his freedom to fight for the liberty and justice of all African Americans — both enslaved and free. Richard Allen would lead the way. He would be the first to forge footsteps and create a path along the trail of freedom for others to follow. He would rise up from the pit of slavery to become one of the Black Founders of America.
The House of Benjamin Chew
At the time Richard Allen was born, slavery was firmly established throughout the American colonies. Allen's father first arrived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on a slave ship from the Caribbean. He and his wife and children were the property of a Quaker master, Benjamin Chew.
When their son, Richard, was born on February 14, 1760, the Philadelphia household of Benjamin Chew was a hub of important political activity. Chew was climbing the political ladder in colonial America. He was appointed the attorney general of the Province of Pennsylvania from 1755 to 1769. By the time Richard Allen was toddling around his mother's skirts, Benjamin Chew lived in an elegant house of the fashionable neighborhood on South Third Street in Philadelphia.
Benjamin Chew was a friend of George Washington and John Adams. Pennsylvania's famous Penn family hired his law services. However, Chew disagreed with the political stance of Benjamin Franklin. Chew did not support the signing of the Declaration of Independence. During his early years in the Chew household, Richard Allen probably saw important political figures, helped prepare for the flurry of political activities, and overheard heated discussions.
In 1767, there were nearly 1,400 slaves living in the city of Philadelphia. This meant that about one out of every five households owned slaves. Benjamin Chew's large family of 10 usually had about 12 workers in their home at any given time. These workers were paid employees, indentured servants, or slaves.
These workers probably kept out of sight. Breakfast was cooked and the table prepared while the Chew family dressed in their bedrooms. When the family came in to eat, the workers went to the bedrooms to tidy the rooms.
Positions at the household usually included a coachman, maids and menservants, a cook, a washerwoman, and a nurse for the children. Younger slaves, such as Richard, helped out in any way they could. There were always jobs such as carrying wood for the fireplace, stuffing straw in a mattress, or helping the sons and daughters of Benjamin Chew.
A Summer Home
When Richard Allen was two years old, a yellow fever epidemic swept through the city of Philadelphia. Dr. Benjamin Rush, a local doctor, described the terrors of 1762 in his papers. As an active physician in the city, he documented as many as 20 deaths a day from August through December. When the fever was over, about one-sixth of Philadelphia's population had died.
This horrible outbreak of yellow fever probably prompted Benjamin Chew to purchase land in Germantown, six miles from Philadelphia. For the next four years he built a summer home called Cliveden on this plot with plans of moving his family away from the city to stay there during the hottest months each year.
Cliveden was expensive to build. Chew's records show he paid large sums of money to build this majestic mansion. By 1767, with the completion of Cliveden, Benjamin Chew sold some of his slaves.
Going ... Going ... Gone ... SOLD!
Richard was only about seven years old when the normal routine of his life was uprooted. Richard Allen, his mother and father, and his brother and two sisters were sold to a farmer named Stokeley Sturgis who lived near Dover, Delaware. Richard now joined the ranks of countless other African Americans throughout the colonies who toiled in the fields.
Richard lived and worked on a plantation near Dover through the rest of his childhood. He did not have a childhood, really. He was not free to wander the countryside and play simple boyhood games. He was a slave.
So he worked. His back ached from plowing and planting and hoeing the weeds. His hands grew rough from chopping wood. His feet grew tired from standing and walking and working from sunup to sundown, and even into the darkness of night. And yet his heart grew strong. A seed of hope sprouted and grew inside, yearning to be free.
Freedom was a constant thought to this young man known to the world at this time only as Richard. Although we do not know exactly when he acquired his last name, on historical documents the name "Allen" does not appear until after he bought his freedom.
After Richard and his family became the property of Stokeley Sturgis, his mother had several more children. But their master was in debt, so one day Sturgis sold Richard's mother and three of his brothers and sisters. Such was the heartbreaking life of a slave.
Africans in America
The history of Africans in America traces its roots back in time to centuries before Richard Allen was born. During the Middle Ages, long before the trans-Atlantic slave trade began, kingdoms in Africa flourished as wealthy and influential powers. The glorious golden empires of Ghana, Songhay, and Mali rose and fell. Caravans arrived in famous cities throughout these magnificent kingdoms from around the known world. Scholars and artists and traders traveled to Timbuktu, that world-renowned center of learning, trade, and religion. Around 1000 A.D., seven ancient walled cities called birane were built in the area now known as Nigeria. These seven city-states were important posts on the sub-Saharan trade routes. Many journeyed to the ancient walled city of Kano where they sought the same magnificent indigo-dyed blue cloth that can still be found in this city in northern Nigeria today.
In the early 1300s, nearly 200 years before Columbus set foot in the Americas, Abubakari II, the wealthy king of Mali, organized two great expeditions. In his second fleet, over 2,000 ships set sail from the shores of Africa to follow the path of the setting sun across the Atlantic Ocean. The king himself sailed in the lead.
The expeditions never returned to Africa. No one knows for sure whether they ever reached the Americas. However, archaeological and historical evidence suggest that Africans arrived on these shores long before the Europeans. When Columbus, Balboa, and other Europeans arrived, they found small groups of people who appeared to be of African descent. Also, ancient Olmec stone heads have been found in the region of Mexico and Central America. Carved with distinctly African facial features, some of these stone giants stand 9 feet high and weigh 40 tons.
Long before colonists established the first permanent settlement in the English colonies, Africans were members of the earliest exploring parties brave enough to sail across the Atlantic Ocean. Africans journeyed with Europeans to the Americas as conquistadors, mariners, explorers, settlers, and slaves.
Pedro Alonzo Niño sailed with Christopher Columbus as navigator in 1492. Conquistador Juan Garrido fought with Hernando Cortés against the Aztecs to conquer what is now known as Mexico City. Juan Valiente was a black conquistador of Chile. Juan Garcia and Miguel Ruiz were black conquistadors of Peru. Nuflo de Olano was part of Balboa's exploring party in 1513 when they first saw the Pacific Ocean. Estevanico's brave adventures led him to explore Florida. Later, he guided an overland expedition through New Mexico in his quest to find the famous "Seven Cities of Gold."
Spanish expeditions attempted to establish permanent settlements in what is now known as the United States. Both free and enslaved Africans were members of these expeditions. In 1565, the settlement of St. Augustine, Florida, was founded. Africans, with their skills in metalworking, construction, and farming, were invaluable to the new community.
The First Africans in English Colonies
The year was 1619. The place was Jamestown, Virginia. John Rolfe and the other English colonists were struggling to survive in the harsh, dangerous wilderness. Suddenly one day a ship, the White Lion, appeared on the horizon. On board were Africans in chains who had been captured from a slave ship sailing from Africa to Spanish colonies much farther south in the Americas. That eventful day, about 20 Africans were sold as indentured servants to John Rolfe and the other colonists.
Antony, Isabella, and the other new arrivals were skilled farmers and metalworkers from the kingdom of Ndongo in Angola. Unlike many of the English colonists, these Angolans knew how to grow important crops for food such as yams, grains, and corn. They knew how to grow tobacco, the crop that could be sold to England for cash. Former blacksmiths in their homeland, they made iron tools and weapons. With the skill and labor of these first Angolans, the colony of Jamestown no longer struggled to survive. And after they served their terms of contracts as indentured servants, many of these men and women earned their freedom.
The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade
One year after the arrival of Africans in Jamestown, the Mayflower set sail and headed to America carrying its boatload of Pilgrims. A steady stream of English colonists began arriving by ship to settle in the wilderness and forests. By this time, the slave trade was already well established in the Caribbean and in South America.
After Columbus sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to North and South America, European countries rushed to conquer and settle the rugged, previously uncharted wilderness. Workers were needed to carve out settlements and work to harvest profits from crops. The trans-Atlantic slave trade was organized by wealthy European companies as a system to provide forced labor to meet this need. It was a dark, sad period of history that stained every individual and every nation involved.
Forts were built along the coast of Africa to hold captured Africans until enough were gathered to cram into overcrowded slave ships. Men, women, and children from all levels of education, position, and wealth were torn from their homeland. All rights and identity were stripped away from them.
The voyage across the Atlantic Ocean became known as the Middle Passage, a time of horror and death for many. Often, slave ships landed first in Brazil or the West Indies to supply workers for the huge sugar, indigo, and coffee plantations there. They then headed up the coast to stop at English colonies in North America.
At various ports, the ships were loaded with crops and raw goods. Eventually, they set sail back to England or other European countries. Back in Europe, the raw goods were manufactured into products such as guns, fabric, and rum. Ships then headed back to Africa to trade their goods for captured slaves. Finally, in the early 1800s, both Britain and the United States outlawed the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Even though slave ships were no longer permitted to bring captive Africans to America, slavery continued in the United States until 1865, when the Civil War finally brought it to an end.
Africans' Culture and Skills
According to the newly forming laws throughout the colonies, enslaved men, women, and children with an African heritage had legal and personal rights taken away from them. Yet in the midst of an era filled with stories of deep tragedy and sorrow, individuals and groups of African Americans rose up with strength and dignity to establish a place and identity for themselves and influence the founding of America.
Many enslaved individuals brought their culture with them from Africa. They influenced America as much as it influenced them. From crafting agricultural tools that they had used successfully in their native land, to cooking favorite dishes from their homeland, to holiday celebrations, to language customs and music and dance, Africans arriving in America shaped the foundation of the new country in countless, important ways.
Toward the end of the 1700s, the city of Charleston, South Carolina, was the largest center of slavery in the newly forming nation. Positioned on the Atlantic Ocean, numerous slave ships sailed into port each year. These ships were greeted by plantation owners looking for strong, healthy workers from specific regions of Africa known for their skills in growing certain crops.
Frequent ads appeared in local papers such as the South Carolina and American General Gazette. These ads recommended the outstanding skills of numerous enslaved artisans and laborers in various shops throughout the city. Africans now living in America provided much of the skill and labor needed to build an emerging nation.
Drayton Hall was one of the larger plantations near Charleston, South Carolina. This rice plantation was home to numerous enslaved people from Angola in southern Africa and Senegal in western Africa. However, slaves were not only of African descent. During early colonial days, nearly one-third of those who were enslaved in the region surrounding Charleston were Native American. Plus, a significant number of enslaved people had ancestors from both cultures — Native American and African.
Because of the skills and knowledge Africans brought with them, cultivating and harvesting rice became an important industry in America.
A Life of Adventure and Influence
Not every African American living in the South was enslaved, however. John Marrant had been born free in New York. Both his parents were free. After his father died, his mother moved with her four children deep into the southern colonies. First living in St. Augustine, Florida, then moving up to Georgia, the family eventually moved to live in Charleston, South Carolina. Marrant grew up to write and publish the story of his life in the popular book, A Narrative of the Lord's Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant, A Black.
Young John Marrant lived life in a big way. When he was a child, his mother held great dreams for her little son, and made certain he learned to read and write. But her plans to have him learn a useful trade disappeared when he set his heart on playing the violin and the French horn, instead. He had a passion for music. By the time he was a teenager, he had learned to play the violin and French horn so well that wealthy gentry paid him big money to entertain them. He earned large sums of money playing throughout Charleston for wealthy parties, balls, dances, and important events.
His life changed when he was 14, however. On the way to perform his French horn at a social, Marrant decided to drop in at a local meeting place where a huge crowd had gathered to hear the famous preacher George Whitefield. Marrant planned to play a prank by loudly tooting his horn. Before he had a chance, however, he heard the preacher's words and took them to heart.
Excerpted from America's Black Founders by Nancy I. Sanders. Copyright © 2010 Nancy I. Sanders. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 "When in the Course of Human Events ..." COLONIAL DAYS,
2 "It Becomes Necessary for One People to Dissolve the Political Bands ..." YEARS OF UNREST,
3 "We Hold These Truths to Be Self-Evident ..." BEGINNINGS OF WAR,
4 "That All Men Are Created Equal ..." THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION,
5 "That They Are Endowed by Their Creator with Certain Unalienable Rights ..." AFRICAN AMERICANS AS CITIZENS,
6 "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness ..." AFRICAN AMERICANS LEAD THE WAY,