Hundreds of years have passed since American colonists fought to be recognized as independent from Great Britain, and while this year’s Fourth of July celebration has come and gone, another hard-fought battle for recognition continues to play out.
Maurice Barboza has been working since the mid-1980s to erect a national monument — dubbed the National Liberty Memorial — honoring African-American patriots who contributed to the colonial cause in the Revolutionary War.
“African-Americans weren’t just inhuman persons brought over from Africa and forced into slavery; they became Americans as soon as they landed and began burying people in the ground,” Barboza said. “Even though their liberty had been taken away from them, they decided they weren’t going to give up on America.”
And Barboza is not giving up on his pledge to make the National Liberty Memorial a reality, despite encountering setbacks along the way.
A portrait of his ancestor, Civil War soldier John Curtis Gay, inspired Barboza’s boyhood interest in his family’s military legacy, which led him to the discovery that his eighth maternal great-grandfather, Jonah Gay, fought in the Revolutionary War.
That revelation prompted Barboza to seek membership in Sons of the American Revolution; he encouraged his aunt, Lena Santos Ferguson, to pursue membership in SAR’s sister organization, Daughters of the American Revolution. Ferguson’s name might sound familiar; her attempt at joining the DAR revealed a racist bent within the organization, sparking threats of legal action, national headlines and a settlement that prompted, among other concessions, the creation of the DAR’s “Forgotten Patriots” publication that identifies African-Americans and American Indians who contributed to the cause during the American Revolution. The DAR also agreed to throw its support behind a national memorial honoring the legacy people of color left in the Revolution.
In 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed the Black Revolutionary War Patriots Act, establishing the nonprofit Black Revolutionary Patriots Memorial Foundation to raise funds to build a national memorial. Disagreements among Foundation members regarding the message of the memorial, a tediously bureaucratic and expensive design process, and other issues led to the dissolution of the group in 2005.
Source: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
Dedicated to the proposition
Barboza lost no time in working to get the effort back on track, establishing the National Mall Liberty Fund DC (Liberty Fund DC) that same year to take up the mantle of the monument project. Since its creation, the group has made significant strides toward its goal.
“We have land approved — the specific site’s not approved, but the area’s been approved — a general authorizing bill was approved by Congress at the end of 2012 and signed by the president in January 2013,” Barboza said.
Three potential sites for the monument have been identified and approved, though Barboza said only one is viable.
“That would be on the Mall, across from the Washington Monument, at 14th and Independence on the west side of the agriculture building. … Congress approved a second piece of legislation in 2014 which allows us to seek that site after an environmental assessment is undertaken.”
Proposed future site of National Liberty Memorial
Barboza said the proximity of the memorial to USDA headquarters would be especially appropriate, given “the fact that African-Americans were the backbone of American agriculture and the nation’s wealth.”
In order to retain authorization from Congress, Liberty Fund DC has until September 2021 to raise 75 percent of the roughly $15 million needed to complete the project and to have a design and site approved.
“We’re optimistic that we’ll be able to meet the deadline and raise sufficient funds,” Barboza said.
Rally the troops
Barboza said it’s not uncommon for such an undertaking to develop over a period of several years. In fact, he said the idea for The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), which opened last September, dates back to the 1920s.
“It was a tremendous effort to get that built, just to get the legislation approved,” he said.
In addition to raising funds, Liberty Fund DC is focusing on raising awareness of the project and building public support through education.
“The Revolutionary War is pretty remote for most Americans, so it’s a challenge to make them understand what this project means to the nation’s founding and to who we are today as a people,” Barboza said.
To close that gap, Liberty Fund DC has been sharing information with community members in the African-American patriots’ hometowns. According to the organization’s website, “Liberty Fund DC has shared the names of over 3,000 local patriots with 426 cities, towns and counties in five states.”
The group is also encouraging municipalities and state legislatures to propose and pass resolutions honoring local patriots, and sample resolutions can be found on the organization’s website (libertyfunddc.com). Visitors to the site can also donate money to the cause, but Barboza said he hopes supporters will go further.
“It would be helpful for people to not just go to the website and donate, but to also talk about it with (colleagues) if they’re members of the Sons or Daughters of the American Revolution, or they’re members of the NAACP or Urban League, if they’re supervisors of counties where they’re from, they should talk about it, they should approve resolutions.”
Barboza has also tried to get the attention of the current White House administration. He hasn’t received any response when he’s reached out, but he said the project has a history of bipartisan support from within the White House, and he’s hopeful that support will continue.
“It’s an extraordinary project, it’s around the block from the White House, it’s high-profile, and the president loves to dedicate things,” Barboza said. “This could be dedicated during the next four years. It might happen faster if the White House paid attention to it.”
From his point of view, Barboza said supporting the National Liberty Memorial is a no-brainer.
“If you believe in liberty and you believe in the principles of the Declaration of Independence, then you ought to support this project and believe it is meaningful and significant, not just for Americans, but for the image that we portray throughout the world.”
Learn more about the National Liberty Memorial here.
Tips for researching your African-American patriot
Begin your search.
Start with yourself and go backwards, one generation at a time. Useful records to collect include birth, death and marriage certificates; obituaries, cemetery records and funeral cards; probate and land records; newspaper announcements; oral histories; military records and discharge papers; and federal and state censuses.
Work your way back to 1870.
For enslaved ancestors, the 1870 federal census is especially important because it is the first census taken after the Civil War and names all persons in a household. For free ancestors, the 1850 federal census is the first census to name all persons in a household. Approximately 15 percent of African-Americans were free when the Civil War began in 1861.
Continue your research in other records.
Findings in pre-1870 records are built on research in post-1870 records. Seek out marriage settlements, probate distributions and court records. Documenting lineage and service is easier in the New England states than in the Southern states.
Establishing your Patriot ancestor
Who served and how did they serve?
“Military service” is credited to those who served in campaigns against the British between April 19, 1775 and Nov. 26, 1783. “Civil service” is credited to those who conducted public business under the authority of the new federal, state, county and town governments. “Patriotic service” is credited to those who took action to further, or demonstrate loyalty to, the cause of American independence, such as taking the oath of fidelity, paying supply taxes, providing supplies or monetary aid or serving on a committee made necessary by the war.
Source: Daughters of the American Revolution. For more tips and resources, visit dar.org/national-society/genealogy.
African-American patriots in Indiana
At least five African-American patriots made their way to Indiana after the Revolutionary War, according to pension applications and information included in the Daughters of the American Revolution publication “Forgotten Patriots.”
George Burk enlisted in Virginia in 1779. He spent his time in the service guarding British prisoners at Albemarle Barracks. He was head of a Ripley Township, Johnson County, Indiana, household of five “free colored” in 1820 and seven “free colored” in 1830. He applied for a pension in Jefferson County, Indiana, in 1831.
Andrew Ferguson was born in 1765 in Virginia. He and his father were seized by the British but eventually escaped. He was drafted in 1870 at age 15 and served in 10 battles, including patriot victories at Musgrove’s Mill and King’s Mountain. Ferguson died in 1855 or 1856 (records vary) in Bloomington, Indiana.
William Hood was a “mulatto boy” who ran away from Henry Minson of Charles City County and was taken up in Halifax County, North Carolina, according to a December 1769 issue of the Virginia Gazette. He was head of a Rockingham County, North Carolina, household of seven “other free” in 1800. He was about 65 years old in 1818 and living in Jefferson County, Indiana, when he applied for a pension.
Moses Knight/McIntosh/Sharper was born in Africa and “reared by” General Alexander Mclntosh on the Big Pee Dee River in South Carolina. Also known as Moses Sharper or Moses Mclntosh, he enlisted in 1779 and served until 1782. He was a press master and delivered a boatload of corn from Culp’s Ferry to General Greene’s army. After the Revolution he went to Washington County, Maryland, and married Mary Ann Hopewell. The family moved to Daviess County, Indiana, where Moses applied for a pension and died April 2, 1848.
Fast facts: African-Americans in the Revolutionary War
– African-Americans, both free and enslaved, fought alongside white soldiers on both the British/Loyalist and Continental/Patriot sides.
– The Continentals, including George Washington’s troops, had such a mixture of Black and white soldiers that a French staff officer referred to them as “speckled.” American combat troops were not integrated to the same extent until the Korean War 170 years later.
– For the most part, slaves who fought for the rebels remained the property of their masters. Enslaved Blacks who sided with the British didn’t fare much better; the last royal governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, promised freedom for male slaves of rebels who joined British forces, but the offer secured lasting liberty for few.
– Slaves who departed with the redcoats when the conflict was over were in their new lands — Canada, England, Australia and Sierra Leone — still treated much as they had been before.
– After the war, London had about 10,000 Blacks in its population, some slaves or former slaves of Englishmen, some escaped Americans, some former or current sailors on navy vessels or merchantmen, including slave ships. In 1786, most of London’s impoverished Blacks were former Americans who had fought for the British.
Source: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
Maurice Barboza (left) and his aunt, Lena Ferguson, hold a photo of John Curtis Gay, their ancestor who fought in the Civil War. Interest in Gay led Barboza to discover an ancestor who fought in the Revolutionary War.