This year, I decided to do something different for Memorial Day. Normally I will post stories or names of those who have served the country and have died in combat or after--which I will still do today, but with one exception. I'm only posting stories about people of color. Those who had even more at stake than their white counterparts. Who served with honor and distinction at home and abroad, even as they were reviled in their own homes by white citizens.
First up is the story of Crispus Attucks. Attucks was the first to die in the Revolution, well, in the lead up to it. Shot and killed by British soldiers during the Boston Massacre, Attucks is a perfect example of how our nation treats its heroes of color.
Born sometime around 1723 to an African slave father and a Nantucket Native American mother, he was born into slavery. In Massachusetts.
In 1850, his owner, one William Brown of Framingham, reported him as a runaway in the Boston Gazette, describing him as A Mulatto fellow, about 27 Years of Age, named Crispus, 6 feet 2 inches high, short cur'l hair, his knees nearer together than common.
Over the next 20 years, Attucks became a sailor, working on whaling crews and doing itinerant labor between, usually ropemaking.
In 1770, Boston was an occupied city, forced to house the King's soldiers. Resentment against the Redcoats was high, especially since there was competition for part time menial labor from them, like ropemaking.
An earlier bar fight between 3 soldiers and a group of Boston locals on Friday, March 2nd, 1770 increased tensions. Attucks was one of the locals involved.
The following Monday, a lone Redcoat wandered into a pub, looking for extra work. Attucks and others chased him from the pub, and went looking for other soldiers nearby. The guard post located near had one soldier standing duty alone. The crowd, now numbering around 30, began pelting the guard with insults, snowballs, and sticks.
A few minutes later, a nearby wig maker's apprentice, Edward Garrick, showed up and called to the captain of the guard,
Captain John Goldfinch, that he had not paid his bill for his wigs. In a town already angered at having to feed, house, and support the British soldiers, this was perhaps the final tinder.
The crowd continued to grow, until it numbered between 3-400.
Captain Goldfinch and 6 other soldiers rushed to the aid of the guard being harassed. The 7 soldiers, with bayonets fixed, surrounded the guard house. Among them was Captain Thomas Preston.
While accounts greatly differ, most agree that at some point, Attucks or someone near him struck Private Hugh Montgomery with something that caused him to fall and drop his musket.
Upon rising up, Montgomery is believed to have opened fire. At that point, the other British soldiers began doing the same. Attucks fell first.
Five men were killed. Future President John Adams, a prominent Boston lawyer, took the case of the soldiers. While being adamantly opposed to the occupation, he felt deeply that everyone deserved a fair trial. Well, at least everyone white.
During the trials, in which Adams managed to get ALL the British soldiers acquitted, he put the full blame on the victims. Especially Attucks. The language may have changed from then to now, but it still sounds very much like the defense used by police now when they shoot and kill a man of color. The race-baiting was clear, and there was no way any jury of wealthy white men was going to convict white soldiers for shooting on a crowd of "thugs".
Describing them as a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and molattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tarrs
, Adams blamed Attucks and named him as the primary assailant. Attucks with his myrmidons comes round Jockson's [Jackson's] corner, and down to the party by the Sentry-box; when the soldiers pushed the people off, this man with his party cried, do not be afraid of them, they dare not fire, kill them! kill them! knock them over! And he tried to knock their brains out. It is plain the soldiers did not leave their station, but cried to the people, stand off: now to have this reinforcement coming down under the command of a stout Molatto fellow, whose very looks, was enough to terrify any person, what had not the soldiers then to fear? He had hardiness enough to fall in upon them, and with one hand took hold of a bayonet, and with the other knocked the man down: This was the behaviour of Attucks;-to whose mad behaviour, in all probability, the dreadful carnage of that night, is chiefly to be ascribed. And it is in this manner, this town has been often treated; a Carr from Ireland, and an Attucks from Framingham, happening to be here, shall sally out upon their thoughtless enterprizes, at the head of such a rabble of Negroes, &c. as they can collect together
Crispus Attucks, the first to die in the Boston Massacre, considered the first death of the Revolution, has always been a controversial figure. Some believe him to be a martyr, some a villain. I tend towards the former myself, but whatever your feelings about him, he should be considered among those honored this Memorial Day.
Image source: http://www.bostonmassacre.net/pictures/pictures5.htm