Native Sons of Liberty
By HENRY LOUIS GATES Jr.
Oak Bluffs, Mass.
Published and copyright August 6, 2006 New York Times
ON June 11, 1823, a man named John Redman walked into the courtroom of Judge Charles Lobb in Hardy County, Virginia, to apply for a pension, claiming to be a veteran of the Revolutionary War. Redman, more than 60 years old, testified that he had been in the First Virginia Regiment of Light Dragoons from Christmas 1778 through 1782, serving initially as a waiter to Lt. Vincent Howell.
The Light Dragoons fought mainly on horseback, using sabers, pistols, and light carbines. They marched from Winchester, Va., to Georgia, where, in the fall of 1779, they laid siege to Savannah. The following year, they fought in Charleston, S.C., narrowly escaping capture in a rout by the British. Redman’s regiment fought the Creek Indians and the British early in 1782, ultimately triumphing over them in June at Sharon, Ga., near Savannah. After the war, Redman settled in Hardy County, where he and his wife kept a farm.
Four decades later, a neighbor and fellow veteran named John Jenkins affirmed Redman’s court testimony. A few weeks later, Redman was granted his Certificate of Pension, receiving the tidy sum of $8 a month until his death in 1836.
Yet standing before Judge Lobb in his courtroom that morning in 1823, John Redman had every reason to be nervous, for his appeal was anything but ordinary. Redman was the rarest of breeds: not just a patriot, but a black patriot — both a free Negro in a nation of slaves and a black man who had fought in a white man’s war.
In 1790, only 1.7 percent of Virginia’s population consisted of free people of color; in the 13 former colonies and the territories of Kentucky, Maine and Vermont, the combined figure was even smaller. Historians estimate that only 5,000 black men served in the Continental Army, whereas tens of thousands fled slavery to join the British.
The story of John Redman is illuminating because it opens a window on an aspect of the Revolutionary War that remains too little known: the contributions and sacrifices of a band of black patriots. But it is particularly fascinating to me because, as I learned just recently, John Redman was my ancestor.
I have been obsessed with my family tree since I was a boy. My grandfather, Edward Gates, died in 1960, when I was 10. After his burial at Rose Hill Cemetery in Cumberland, Md. — Gateses have been buried there since 1888 — my father showed me my grandfather’s scrapbooks. There, buried in those yellowing pages of newsprint, was an obituary, the obituary, to my astonishment, of our matriarch, a midwife and former slave named Jane Gates. “An estimable colored woman,” the obituary said.
I wanted to know how I got here from there, from the mysterious and shadowy preserve of slavery in the depths of the black past, to my life as a 10-year-old Negro boy living blissfully in a stable, loving family in Piedmont, W.Va., circa 1960, in the middle of the civil rights movement.
I peppered my father with questions about the names and dates of my ancestors, both black and white, and dutifully recorded the details in a notebook. I wanted to see my white ancestors’ coat of arms. Eventually, I even allowed myself to dream of discovering which tribe we had come from in Africa.
More recently, in part to find my own roots, I started work on a documentary series on genetics and black genealogy. I especially wanted to find my white patriarch, the father of Jane Gates’s children. The genealogical research into my family tree uncovered, to my great wonder, three of my fourth great-grandfathers on my mother’s side: Isaac Clifford, Joe Bruce and John Redman.
All were black and born in the middle of the 18th century; two gained freedom by the beginning of the Revolutionary War. All three lived in the vicinity of Williamsport, a tiny town in the Potomac Valley in the Allegheny Mountains, in what is now West Virginia.
I am descended from these men through my maternal grandmother, Marguerite Howard, whom we affectionately called “Big Mom.” When Jane Ailes, a genealogist, revealed these discoveries to me, I could scarcely keep my composure. In searching for a white ancestor, I had found — improbably — a black patriot instead.
Frankly, it had never occurred to me that I, or anyone in the many branches of my family — Gateses, Colemans, Howards, Bruces, Cliffords, and Redmans — had even the remotest relationship to the American Revolution, or to anyone who had fought in it. If anyone had told me a year ago that this summer I would be inducted into the Sons of the American Revolution as the descendant of a black patriot — 183 years almost to the day after John Redman proved his claim — I would have laughed. I had long supposed that slavery had robbed my ancestors of the privilege of fighting for the birth of this country.
Like most African-Americans of my generation, I had heard of the Daughters of the American Revolution, unfortunately, because of their refusal in 1939 to allow the great contralto, Marian Anderson, the right to perform at Constitution Hall. Anderson responded to the group’s racism with sonorous defiance, holding her Easter Sunday concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial instead.
In part to make amends for their treatment of Anderson, the Daughters of the American Revolution have begun counting the number of black patriots; so far they have documented about 3,000. Harvard’s Du Bois Institute and the Sons of the American Revolution are now researching the 80,000 pension and bounty land warrant applications of Revolutionary War veterans to compare these names to census records from 1790 to 1840.
Already, in just a few weeks, we have discovered almost a dozen African-Americans who served in the war and whose racial identity had been lost or undetected. With this systematic approach, we hope to expand substantially our knowledge of African-Americans who served in the Continental Army and, eventually, to reach a definitive number.
Once the research is completed, we will advertise for descendants of these individuals and encourage them to join the Sons or Daughters of the American Revolution, thus increasing the organizations’ black memberships beyond the meager few dozen or so the two groups have now. (If all of my aunts, uncles and cousins who are also descended from John Redman join, we will quadruple the number of black members in both organizations!)
We want to establish the exact number of descendants of African-Americans who served in the Continental Army, great American patriots, defenders of liberty to which they themselves were not entitled.
OF course, it is perfectly irrelevant, in one sense, what one’s ancestors did two centuries ago; but re-imagining our past, as Americans, can sometimes help us to re-imagine our future. In doing so, it may help to understand that the founding of this Republic was not only red, white and blue, it was also indelibly black.
Henry Louis Gates Jr., a professor at Harvard University, was an executive producer of the PBS series “African American Lives.”