While celebrating the 278th birthday of George Washington, the also celebrated Black History Month at the on Sunday—by acknowledging the thousands of black Americans, both free and enslaved, who fought for U.S. independence.
Author and historian Arthur S. Lefkowitz presented a multimedia lecture detailing the integration of the Continental Army. The U.S. Army would not be an integrated fighting force again until the latter part of World War II, according to Lefkowitz. (Black soldiers fought in the Civil War, but as part of segregated regiments.)
John Vorperian, first vice president of the Historical Society, said this year’s event was the first time that Black History Month was co-celebrated with their Washington celebration, adding that the two “tie together beautifully.”
Lefkowitz discussed the various colonies and the very different cultures and populations they consisted of. The more northern colonies, in general, had much lower slave populations because farming was done on a much smaller scale. In New Hampshire and New York, for example, slaves tended to be a small portion of the population and tended to work at seaports or as personal servants. In Virginia and South Carolina, where large-scale, labor-intensive tobacco farming was widespread, slaves were about 40 percent and over 50 percent of their colonies’ population, respectively.
Gen. George Washington had been lobbying for a professional army, as opposed to a volunteer militia-based fighting force, throughout 1776, and in 1777, “as the Revolution was dragging on,” Lefkowitz said, black men started to be recruited to fight in Washington’s Continental Army.
In a time when the desertion rate was about one-third, black soldiers proved to be much more loyal, Lefkowitz said, with few documented cases of desertion. This was due in part to the fact that enslaved blacks were promised their freedom in return for their service during the war. This newly professional army endured and persevered through very tough battle, Lefkowitz said.
“The discipline was strict, the fighting was brutal, the warfare was pretty gruesome,” he said.
Five percent of the Continental Army was black, Lefkowitz said. Lefkowitz acknowledged that some black soldiers were tricked and returned to slavery after their service, though others did in fact achieve their freedom, with some receiving land or other assistance, such as training in a trade or the means to set up shop as a tradesman. He differentiated this process from the more political and well-known concept of emancipation, which freed slaves but often denied them the means to make a living.
The speakers acknowledged the fact that Washington was a slave owner, which obviously complicates discussion of his command of black soldiers and leads to speculation about his thoughts on slavery as an institution and on black Americans in general.
Hoch said Washington represents “a paradox of a slave owner who helped create a nation where individual rights were supposed to be for everyone.”
Lefkowitz noted that Washington freed his slaves after his death, and Vorperian illustrated this by reading from Washington’s last will and testament at the end of Lefkowitz’s lecture.
Former White Plains Councilman Bill Brown spoke at the end of the event to introduce a new book, “On the Streets Where We Lived: A Pictorial Study of African Americans Living in White Plains, New York from the Beginning of the Twentieth Century.”
Brown said the book would serve to tell the under-told story of black residents of White Plains.