In 1777 Prince Hall signed his name on a petition to free enslaved persons in Massachusetts. He was a free man, but that didn’t stop him from dedicating his life to advocating for the end of slavery and for granting African Americans full rights under the law. Formerly enslaved, Hall obtained his freedom in 1770. While living in Boston, Hall adopted the revolutionary rhetoric of liberty and freedom in his activism. A leatherworker and active Patriot, Hall supplied drumheads to the Patriot army and may have even fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Born in Africa, Harry Washington was captured, sold into slavery and purchased by George Washington. When the British docked the HMS Savage near Mount Vernon, Harry was one of 17 who seized an opportunity for freedom, and served the British throughout the war as a “black pioneer.” In 1781, Harry boarded the HMS Savage an enslaved man seeking refuge. In 1783, Harry boarded the HMS L’Abondance a free man, bound for a new life in Nova Scotia.
Months before the Siege of Yorktown in 1781, an enslaved man named Billy was brought before the court of Prince William County, Virginia. Billy had run away to join the British, but was caught, returned, and tried for treason for joining “the Enemy of the Commonwealth.” The court sentenced Billy to a traitor’s death. Members of Virginia’s House of Delegates urged Virginia Governor Thomas Jefferson to intercede, arguing that as an enslaved person and “not being admitted to the Priviledges of a Citizen,” Billy “owes the state no allegiance,” and therefore could not be found guilty of treason. The decision saved Billy’s life, but reinforced his status as property—not a citizen with equal rights under the law.
During the American Revolution, both Prince Hall and Harry Washington fought for a new life free from enslavement. Prince Hall worked with other free and enslaved men in Massachusetts to petition the government for the abolition of slavery which, among landmark court cases like that of Elizabeth Freeman, finally saw an effective end of the institution in that state in 1783. Freeman, also known as Mumbet, filed and won a freedom case in 1781 in which she argued that slavery was incongruous with the Massachusetts Constitution’s Article 1 that stated “all men are born free and equal.”
Harry Washington seized the British army’s promise of freedom and started a new life a thousand miles from his enslavement in Virginia. While the Revolution did prompt the Virginia Assembly to take gradual steps to allow the private manumission of enslaved men, women, and children, slavery would not end in the Commonwealth until 1865—another 82 years after the end of the American Revolution, and the Constitution would not recognize African Americans as citizens until the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment three years later in 1868.
While the rhetoric of liberty and freedom did promote individual states to recognize the wrongs of the institution of slavery, the American Revolution did not end slavery in the United States. Further, debates surrounding the ratification of the Constitution solidified the institution in the new nation, rather than take steps to end it. As America’s experiment in democracy continued to evolve, it would be up to individual states to decide on the matter themselves.
In the years after the American Revolution, thousands of African Americans were still enslaved in Virginia and the new United States. Though they risked their lives in the service of their country, because of pervasive and continuing discrimination few free African-American veterans received the same benefits as their fellow white compatriots, and increasing racism denied newly freed men and women full civil rights, which doomed some to lives of grinding poverty. Nonetheless, African Americans worked hard to make their voices heard and promote social change for themselves and their communities.
James Forten was born free in Philadelphia in 1766 and served as a sailor onboard the American ship, the Royal Louis, during the Revolution. When the British captured the ship James became a prisoner but the captain, impressed with James’ character, gave him a choice—return with him to England, or risk death onboard the British Navy’s most notorious prison ship, the Jersey. James refused to betray his country, and spent the next seven months onboard the Jersey. After the war, James returned to Philadelphia, eventually becoming a prominent businessman.
Forten used his position as a community leader to become a vocal advocate for the abolition of slavery. In 1799, Forten petitioned Congress to end slavery once and for all, writing “Though our faces are black, yet we are men; and though many among us cannot write, yet we all have the feelings and passions of men, and are as anxious to enjoy the birth-right of the human race…” Forten went on to urge Congress to “consider us part of the human race.” Forten’s advocacy for equal treatment under the law continued in 1813 in response to a Pennsylvania bill which considered restricting immigration of people of African descent into the Commonwealth, among other steps to denigrate African Americans already living there. In his “Letters from a Man of Colour, On Late Bill Before the Senate of Pennsylvania,” Forten wrote:
We hold this truth to be self-evident, that GOD created all men equal,and is one of the most prominent features in the declaration of Independence, and in that glorious fabric of collected wisdom, our noble constitution. This idea embraces the Indian and the European, the Savage and the Saint, the Peruvian and the Laplander, the white Man and the African, and whatever measures are adopted subversive of this inestimable privilege, are in direct violation of the letter and spirit of our constitution, and become subject to the animadversion of all, particularly those who are deeply interested in the measure.
Further, Forten added, “Many of our ancestors were brought here more than one hundred years ago; many of our fathers, many of ourselves have fought and bled for the Independence of our country. Do not then expose us to sale. Let not the spirit of the father behold the son robbed of that Liberty which he died to establish, but let the motto of our Legislators be ‘The Law knows no distinction.’”
The work of dismantling the institution of slavery, begun by men and women such as Prince Hall, Elizabeth Freeman and James Forten, finally came to fruition with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, but it would take another two years for it to be enforced throughout the United States and former Confederacy. On June 19—“Juneteenth”—we commemorate the end of the slavery in the United States as an anniversary of the day when, 155 years ago in 1865, Union General Major Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. Congress ratified the Thirteenth Amendment on December 6, 1865, permanently abolishing the institution of slavery in the United States.
Long after the first unfree Africans arrived on Virginia’s shores in 1619, slavery was finally abolished in 1865. Even then, African Americans were still not seen as equal in the eyes of the law. Though the passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments took steps to right this wrong, the work of dismantling systemic racism in the United States continues today.
Discover the stories of Prince Hall, Harry Washington and other African Americans in the Revolutionary War through exhibition galleries, films and interactives at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown.
Katherine Egner Gruber
Special Exhibition Curator, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation
James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton, In Hope of Liberty: Culture, Community, and Protest Among Northern free Blacks, 1700-1860, Oxford University Press, 1998.
John P. Kaminski, ed., A Necessary Evil? Slavery and the Debate Over the Constitution, Madison House: University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for the Study of the American Constitution, 1995.
The Library Company of Philadelphia, Black Founders: The Free Black Community in the Early Republic, “Struggle for Citizenship and Equality” primary sources.
Massachusetts Historical Society, “The Legal End of Slavery in Massachusetts.”
Smithsonian/National Museum of African American History & Culture, “Talking About Race” web portal.
Meilan Solly, “158 Resources to Understand Racism in America,” Smithsonian Magazine, June 4, 2020.
Brent Tarter, “The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” Encyclopedia Virginia, Virginia Humanities, 2013.
“Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” Encyclopedia Virginia, Virginia Humanities, 2014.
“The Abolition of Slavery in Virginia,” Encyclopedia Virginia, Virginia Humanities, 2015.
Nicholas P. Wood, “A “class of Citizens”: The Earliest Black Petitioners to Congress and Their Quaker Allies,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 74, No. 1 (January 2017), pp. 109-144