Four Black Americans Forgotten in Our History
I always thought it was trash that Black History Month was celebrated during the shortest month of the year. What I didn’t know was that there was a significant reason behind February being dubbed Black History Month. The second week of February coincides with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, and both men were instrumental in the emancipation of slaves. Frederick Douglass, a former slave and one of the leaders of the abolitionist movement, which fought to end slavery, celebrated his birthday on February 14. Even though Frederick Douglass’s exact birthdate was never recorded. (No birthdays for slaves, obviously.)
February as Black History Month makes some sense now. It’s amazing how a little learning can alter perspective in real time. With that in mind, here’s five black Americans who history tends to forget:
Salem Poor (1747–1802)
After being born a slave, Salem Poor purchased his own freedom two decades later. (It cost Salem Poor the equivalent of a few thousand dollars in today’s American currency and twenty years of his life for the basic right to live free.)
What did Salem Poor do with his bought freedom?
He enlisted in the army to defend the budding nation that enslaved him. Even more ironic, Salem Poor fought during the American Revolution to help America break free from British oppression.
Salem Poor fought in the battles of Saratoga, Monmouth, and Bunker Hill. Samuel was well-respected among his fellow soldiers for his skills and courage during the Battle of Bunker Hill. In that fight, Salem killed British Lieutenant Colonel James Abercrombie and many other enemy Redcoats.
After the battle, Salem Poor was formally recognized when fourteen of his brothers in arms sent a petition to the General Court of Massachusetts. His comrades in arms labeled Salem as a “brave and gallant soldier,” saying he “behaved like an experienced officer.”
A slave, considered three-fifths of a person when his life began, Salem Poor died an American patriot and hero of the American Revolution.
James Armistead Lafayette (1760–1832)*
Another black American hero born into slavery; James Armistead lived most of his life on a plantation in Virginia. During the American Revolution, James Armistead received permission from his master, William Armistead, to enlist in Marquis de Lafayette’s French Allied units. ( How disgusting is it that slaves’ last names we’re the same as their abusive owners?)
Armistead served as a spy, pretending to be a runaway slave to gain access to the British military, specifically, General Cornwallis’s headquarters. (You ever see the Mel Gibson movie, The Patriot. The old general villain of that flick. Don’t worry I reference the film again. Spoilers ahead.)
Once James Armistead gained the trust of British intelligence, he moved back and forth between the two armies’ camps, feeding false information to the British while providing strategies and tactics to Marquis de Lafayette and the French Allied units. He even served under the traitorous bastard Benedict Arnold.
Believe it or not, it wasn’t Mel Gibson stabbing a Redcoat with an American flag that led to General Cornwallis’ surrender. It was James Armistead. The information he gathered detailed British plans to move thousands of troops from Portsmouth to Yorktown. James Armistead alerted George Washington, and they set up a blockade around Yorktown leading to General Cornwallis’ surrender in 1781.
America won the war for its independence because of the intelligence, courage, and skills of one former slave.
Oh, did I say former?
After the war, James Armistead returned to being a slave. Spies did not qualify under the Act of 1783 which emancipated any slave-soldiers that fought for the American Revolution. (Look at our government, even when it began, those in charge made bullshit loopholes.)
James Armistead petitioned Congress for his freedom for several years, but still remained in chains. However, in 1787, Marquis de Lafayette, the commander James Armistead served under in the American Revolution, wrote a letter to Congress asking for his friend’s freedom.
After the letter from Marquis de Lafayette, James Armistead became a free man. He moved to his own farm, where he fell in love and had a family. James Armistead changed his name by adding “Lafayette” as his last name to honor the general who helped set him free.
James Armistead Lafayette.
Thanks for taking down that bastard Cornwallis.
There are conflicting reports on when James Armistead Lafayette was born and died. Most agree with 1760–1832, but it is unconfirmed.
Cathay Williams (1844–1892)
Born a slave (seems to be a theme here), Cathay Williams was pressed into service for the Union Army after they occupied Jefferson City in 1861. She enjoyed this experience so much, that in 1866, Cathay Williams enlisted into the military disguised as a man. Yeah, she “Mulaned” that shit. For nearly three years, Cathay Williams served alongside men in the United States Army. However, smallpox and its complications caused her sex to be revealed after medical treatment in 1868. She was honorably discharged from the United States Army soon after.
You think that deterred Cathay Williams from doing what she loved? Hell no. She signed up with an all-black regiment that eventually became the Buffalo Soldiers.
Cathay Williams was the first African American woman to enlist for military service during the Indian Wars. She is also the only known female Buffalo Soldier. Even more bad ass, she is the only confirmed woman to serve in the United States Army under the guise of being a man.
In 1890, Cathay Williams applied for a disability pension based on her military service. Cathay’s request was denied, and she died two years later.
Shirley Chisholm (1924–2005)
Shirley Chisholm considered herself to have a “double handicap” as being both black and female. (Damn, much hasn’t changed since the 1940s.)
In 1969, Shirley Chisholm became the first black woman elected to Congress. Shirley represented New York’s 12th District from 1969 to 1983. “Fighting Shirley” introduced more than fifty pieces of legislation. She fought for race and gender equality, the poor, and an end to the Vietnam War. She was also a co-founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971.
In 1972, Shirley Chisholm shattered a glass ceiling for women and black Americans by running for President. Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, Fighting Shirley was discriminated against. She was blocked from participating in televised debates. She took legal action that resulted in her being allowed to give one speech. One. Single. Uno. (Having a black woman on television who’s running for President was too controversial. Think about that. It was only fifty years ago.) Shirley never made it past the Democratic Party’s Primary Election, with America’s racism and sexism being a major reason why.
In 1977, Shirley Chisholm became the first black woman and second woman ever to serve on the House Rules Committee.
Her motto in life?
“Unbought and Unbossed.”
I think America needs a little more of that.
Originally published at https://brianvstheworld.com on February 28, 2022.