Black Women in the American Revolutionary War
No actual documented records exist showing the sacrifice and hard work of the African American woman in the Revolutionary or Civil wars. Some diaries and oral histories give us valuable insight to know some of these brave and amazing women though. For most of them life went on as usual. They worked from daylight to dark, loved and laughed, submitted to awful abuses and still carried a love for this country that was trying to form a government that would fail them for centuries. They did not fail their country however. Here are some of their stories.
Tales handed down orally through generations of the Heard family (who had owned Kate and other slaves) say Kate was very tall, standing at least six feet. She was a slave having been born of pure blooded Africans kidnapped from Africa and she said she was the daughter of an African king and her demeanor was indeed royal.
Mammy Kate gave birth to nine children and cared for the plantation owners and visitors, her own children and the master's children. She washed, cooked, cleaned and loved. She and her husband Daddy Jack went about life as best they could considering they were held in bondage. But it seems the Heard family treated them well and life was good for the family. Stephen Heard was Governor of Georgia but not afraid to fight for a chance at freedom for the Colonies. He was captured in the Battle of Kettle Creek and held prisoner in Augusta, sentenced to die by hanging for treason in February 1779.
Mammy Kate was not about to allow that to happen. She and Daddy Jack took two of Governor Heard's purebred Arabian horses and traveled to the prison. She offered her services as a servant, cooking food and washing clothing for the British troops. Once they knew and trusted her, Kate asked to take her master clean clothing as he was to be executed the next day. The guards agreed and allowed her in to the prisoner.
Kate carried the clothing and some food into the prison in a large basket and once inside somehow placed Mr. Heard inside it and carried him out. He was to all accounts a very small man and she was a big strong woman. It was an ingenious plan.
Daddy Jack was waiting in the woods with the horses and took the Governor to safety. The Heard family was so grateful that he manumitted her and gave her some land to stake a home of her own. But she remained on the plantation, likely because that was the only life she had ever known. The Governor died without a will but his son wrote and filed one, mentioning both Mammy Kate and Daddy Jack. She and Daddy Jack are buried together in the rock walls of Heardmont Cemetery in Elberton Georgia.
Mammy Kate was the first black woman to ever be honored as a patriot of the American Revolution in the State of Georgia. Daddy Jack was also acknowledged when the Daughters of the American Revolution laid wreaths at their graves.
sources: John McIntosh history on Elbert County and Sons of the American Revolution, the George Washington Chapter
Slave, poet, patriot. Phillis Wheatley was all of these and more. She was kidnapped from West Africa as a very young child and brought to America. Bought at age seven by the Wheatley family she settled into life as a house slave for the family. It was common for slaves to use the family names of their owners and so she did, losing her African name and receiving a brand new name from her owners, being named after the ship that transported the captives .
Phillis was allowed to be educated with the Wheatley children and took to reading and writing immediately. She loved words and learned how to put them together in essays, poems and letters. The Wheatley's recognized that Phillis had an incredible intellect and encouraged her literary pursuits. She performed her servant's duties and still managed to write about her love for Christ and her new country, America.
Phillis read some of her poems aloud in public before society. Voltaire heard her speak and said Phillis had "very good English verse." But many white people refused to consider the words of a black slave woman. One man did though. General George Washington, leader of the Patriot army heard about the poem Phillis wrote about him. He invited her to his camp where she read it to the future President of the United States.
In 1778 Phillis Wheatley, the first black woman to publish a book and the first recorded to write poetry was granted her freedom. Her life afterward was hard and full of sorrow, but she never gave up on her dream of being a poet.
The final stanza of Phillis Wheatley's poem for General Washington:
Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,
Thy ev'ry action let the Goddess guide.
A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine,
With gold unfading, WASHINGTON! Be thine.
sources: Africans in America/part 2 and vcu.edu
The British Army saw slaves as expendable, using them as free labor with promises of freedom after the war. Some were even conscripted as personal servants or field labor, growing food for the army. George Washington lagged in allowing blacks to join and fight in his own army but was forced to open ranks as fighting, cold and deprivation depleted his own troops.
While their husbands were working as carpenters, caring for the horses, and in other areas, black women were cooking, washing clothes and in other vital roles. They played a huge part in the war, making up the workforce that repaired fortifications in southern cities such as Savannah and Charleston. Yet, they did not receive the promised and longed for freedom, status and respect after the war, but were relegated back to being virtually invisible. One slave woman had enough and took action.
Her slave name was Bett and she was generally known as Mum Bett, having a daughter called Little Bett. Her husband had served and been killed in the Revolutionary War but his sacrifice brought his widow no relief. Mum Bett and her daughter were owned by the Ashley family of Sheffield, Massachusetts. One day the mistress attempted to strike Mum Bett’s sister with a hot kitchen shovel and the brave woman stepped in front of the endangered girl taking the blow and receiving a burn mark that would remain as a scar the rest of her life. When people asked about the scar, she told them to ask Mrs. Ashley.
Mum Bett left the Ashley household and refused to return. Her master, John Ashley appealed to the law for his property to be returned. But Mum Bett was a very wise lady, having listened to John Ashley and his cronies discuss politics and legislature related to the new Massachusetts constitution that said “all men are born free and equal.” She thought that surely applied to her also and went to an attorney who was active in the anti slavery movement, Theodore Sedgewick, asking for his help. They sued for her freedom and won. Once she was a free woman, Mum Bett took the name Elizabeth Freeman and still refused to return to john Ashley when he offered her wages.
Elizabeth Freeman’s case was presented in another court case two years later and was instrumental in Massachusetts declaring slavery unconstitutional in that state. She was a Revolutionary hero just as if she had stood shoulder to shoulder with General Washington himself. Instead of firing a rifle, Elizabeth Freeman fired justice and righteousness within the court system.
She is recorded as saying,
“Any time, any time while I was a slave, 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-just to stand one minute on God's airth a free woman-I would.” Elizabeth Freeman
Link to the court transcript:
source:Africans in America Resource Bank