Black Revolutionary War Reenactors Want to Set the Record Straight
All photos by Robbie Wilkins
Entertainment

Black Revolutionary War Reenactors Want to Set the Record Straight

I joined up with the black Revolutionary War heroes who are taking back our history, one reenactment at a time.
February 22, 2017, 7:36pm

The night of March 5, 1770, was bitterly cold in Boston. British soldiers in the 29th Regiment of Foot under General Thomas Gage were unable to find lodgings in the town, so they pitched their tents right in the commons. The stench was unbearable—urine from the latrines streaked the snow and frost-covered ground. The troops were there to forcibly collect taxes, and some of the residents regarded them as an occupying force. Tensions were high when, in front of the Customs House, a young barber's apprentice named Edward Garrick insulted Hugh White of the 29th. Someone rang the town meeting bell, and a crowd quickly gathered.

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With tensions running high, the growing crowd of colonists, led by a black man named Crispus Attucks, surrounded the British troops, pelting them with snow and ice. Then one of the soldiers opened fire, killing three men outright and mortally wounding two others, including Attucks. Attucks, a fugitive slave, would be one of first casualties of the Revolutionary War.

The story of Crispus Attucks wasn't available to me when I was enrolled in the New York City public school system. I had never encountered his story in books, and it was never taught to me in the classroom. It wasn't until later, after I dropped out of high school, that I first encountered him. I've always been curious about how black people have been portrayed or made invisible in history, and I wondered about other stories like his.

Last May, I took our VICE Labs film crew to Maple Grove Cemetery in Queens to check out a group of black historical reenactors called the Sable Soldiers of the American Revolution. The group meets semi-regularly to recreate historical events and "portray and interpret the Africans who fought in the American Revolutionary War." Over the course of the day, I was immersed in American Revolutionary War history as these men, mostly educators, saw it. Their reenactment was a powerful vision of black heroes and patriots alongside white ones, an unwhitewashed reframing of a history that's been mostly denied to us.

Maple Grove Cemetery is well kept, the neatly manicured grass strewn with flowers left behind for loved ones. There is no path, so I walked straight through a cluster of graves and into a makeshift colonial military encampment, where I encountered a smattering of canvas tents, antique lanterns, planks of wood, and cannons.

Ludger K. Balan, one of the lead organizers, was busy setting out folding tables in the "information section" planned for visitors. Balan, a dreadlocked man uniformed in a period-appropriate navy cotton jacket and beige knickers, told me he was dressed to represent the Marbleheaders, also known as the 14th Continental Regiment. I asked how black men went from ex-slaves to freedom fighters in the early stages of the war, and Balan explained that working on the docks, one of the few available positions to freed men, lent them a skill set that was instrumental in wartime. "They knew how to work as a team because they were fishermen," he said.

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The 30-something Balan has been on the historical reenactment circuit since 2011, switching out between colonial and Civil War–era garb. He sails authentic model colonial ships and spends time perfecting his technique firing cannons and muskets.

"It's the 240th anniversary of the Battle of Long Island," he said, invoking the day's significance. "We are the Sable Soldiers of the American Revolution and we represent African heritage [in] the American War of Independence."

Balan led me to a cottage so I could change into my historical garb: tan knickers, a puffy, Seinfeld-esque white shirt, and long socks that signified that I was with the 1st Rhode Island Regiment of Foot. The "black regiment," as it was called, was the only segregated unit of the Revolutionary War.

"One of my main desires is kids experiencing history in a different way," Brett Crenshaw, a 20-something reenactor, explained.

Photo by Andrew Maso

Similarly, Donavin White, a 54-year-old social studies teacher, grew impassioned speaking on the subject of his students. "When I dress in period clothing for the students," he said, "not only do they visualize it, but they see it."

All of this touched me. I'm a dropout, but I still know that public schools typically offer a whitewashed, Eurocentric version of history. Any other narrative becomes an optional lesson. I've gleaned more black history from the pages of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States and from going to Worker's World Party meetings than I ever did in school. Learning black history is like an extracurricular activity.

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"I love education," continued White, who teaches junior high. "They're actually forcing black teachers out of public education, that is my belief." A scant 4 percent of US public school teachers are men of color, a statistic that correlates with White's paranoia. Overall, teachers of color make up about only 17 percent of the entire teaching workforce.

The 70-something Leon Vaughn was the oldest of our quartet. He gave an example of the miseducation he received growing up in Virginia. "There's a cemetery in downtown Norfolk called Elmwood Cemetery, and [in it] a statue of a black Civil War soldier," he said. "When he was a young child, his family moved to Massachusetts and this man became a part of 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment. After the Battle of Fort Wagner, he became one of the first black men to win the Medal of Honor. My high school was just eight blocks from that cemetery. I had to [become a reenactor] to find this out."

Photo by Andrew Maso

Throughout the day at Maple Grove, I received tutorials on the colonial way of life from my fellow black reenactors. The symbolic experience of older black men teaching the younger generation how to clean and load a musket resonated with me. In fact, I became so comfortable with the nearly four-foot-long weapon that I wasn't worried when I came across a trio of police officers underneath a small pop-up tent, who paid me no mind. For that day, the present state of hostile policing relented to allow us to discuss how black Revolutionary soldiers fought for America's freedom so many years ago.

During the lunch break, I ate out of a wooden bowl, enjoying a meat stew with onions, carrots, and beef. I built a kinship with fellow reenactors from different units, and the thrill of black people seizing our narrative took the place of preparing for real combat. I helped with heavy artillery, passing off a blank cannonball to be fired by a team of men. Our directions were first given in English and then in Spanish, in honor of the Spanish Colonel Bernardo de Gálvez, who led one of the most diverse military forces in history, consisting of recruits from Mexico, free blacks, and experienced Spanish soldiers.

Photo by Andrew Maso

The day culminated in a military march to a 225-year-old red oak tree in the cemetery, commemorating the 240th anniversary of the Battle of Long Island. Immediately after the American Revolution, many of the black soldiers who were promised freedom in exchange for their service were instead violently recaptured and sent back to their masters. In short order, George Washington passed the Militia Act of 1792, disallowing all but "abled bodied white male citizens" in the military. It wasn't until the Korean War that integrated units were formally included as part of the United States Armed Forces. However, during revolutionary times, these units were commonplace.

Throughout the 241 years of this country's existence, black people have struggled to establish their humanity in the eyes of white America. Taking back our history has been a task unto itself, one performed over and over in any number of milieus, from making Martin Luther King Jr. Day a federal holiday to putting Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill to war reenactments, like this one.

"[As] a black man, seeing the faces of black people light up when they are taught their history, that's a joy. Old and young," said our elder statesman Vaughn, a gleam in his eye. "This is a hobby, but a rewarding hobby."

Photo by Andrew Maso

Messiah Rhodes is an associate producer at VICELAND and is currently host of Black Trademarked Photo Editing Software History . Follow him on Twitter.