Oxford AASC: Photo Essay

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PHOTO ESSAY

African Americans in the Revolutionary War

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Myths and Realities

Courtesy of the Newport Historical Society.

According to one estimate, approximately five thousand black Americans took part in the fight for independence. Although many of these patriots, both free and slave, are remembered for their service, far more are now unknown. Unsurprisingly, in the generations following the war many views developed regarding the role African Americans played in the Revolution, some well-documented and others apocryphal, many favorable but some hostile. This painting c. 1780, thought to be of a Revolutionary War sailor, is a good example of the way later generations interpreted and sometimes even embellished black participation in the Revolution. Modern analysis of the painting has revealed that it was in fact reworked after its original composition, changing the skin color of the sailor from white to black. Perhaps the result of a nineteenth-century abolitionist effort to emphasize the role blacks played in the struggle for independence, the painting today presents an engaging historical puzzle and a reminder of how much we have still to learn about black contributions to early America.

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