When Martin Luther King, Jr., arrived in Boston in the fall of 1951, the word ‘freedom’ was very much in the air. The Freedom Trail had just been created, and it was an instant and enduring success. Tourists flocked to the path that marked steps taken by such Revolutionary heroes as Paul Revere, Sam Adams and John Hancock.
There were plenty of other heroes who fought for freedom and dignity during the Revolutionary era. In honor of Martin Luther King Day, the New England Historical Society presents six stories about African-Americans who struggled in different ways for liberty.
Black Kings and Governors of Early New England: For a century beginning in 1750, New England African-Americans elected 31 of their own black kings and governors. These early leaders presided over an informal social order that prepared African-Americans for their role as free civic participants.
In New England, African-Americans fought and suffered and died in the American Revolution. As many as one-quarter of the men who served in the war were African-American. Tobias Gilmore won his freedom by fighting in the American Revolution. In his hometown of Raynham, Mass., on every July 4thoff he fired a cannon 14 times, 13 for each of the original colonies and one for George Washington.
Elizabeth Freeman couldn’t read but she knew what freedom meant to her. She took her case to court in Massachusetts. “If one minute’s freedom had been offered to me, and I had been told I must die at the end of that minute, I would have taken it,” she said.
Ona Judge Staines outwitted her slavemaster – George Washington – by escaping to freedom in Portsmouth, N.H., and eluding his attempts to get her back.
Paul Cuffe, a Quaker who lived in Westport, R.I., was the wealthiest African American in the country. He was taken prisoner during the American Revolution and afterwards decided the best hope for his people was to return to Africa.