On this Independence Day weekend, I’ve enjoyed reading about the roles that Black men and women, enslaved and free, played in the American Revolution. I especially recommend the words and images that Prof. Woody Holton of USC has gathered in “The Declaration of Independence’s debt to Black Americans.”
To add a North Carolina connection, here’s a brief profile I wrote about the remarkable Thomas Peters in A Journey through North Carolina History (with a few small revisions). For more about slavery and revolution in Mecklenburg County, see the first chapter of the Queen City Nerve’s “Black History of Charlotte.”
In the spring of 1776, as Britain and its North American colonies moved towards war, a group of British ships appeared off the Cape Fear coast. Thomas Peters was waiting.
Peters had been enslaved for more than twenty years. He had been captured by slave traders in his native Nigeria, shipped to Louisiana, and then sold to North Carolina. He had tried to escape many times before. He was not going to let this opportunity pass.
Peters had plenty of ways to follow the colonial-British conflict. His enslaver, William Campbell, lived in Wilmington, and was an active member of the Wilmington chapter of the Sons of Liberty. Peters worked as a millwright, building and repairing machinery, and his work brought him into contact with a wide range of area residents. A year earlier, Virginia governor Earl Dunmore had promised freedom to enslaved men and women who left Patriot enslavers to join the British forces. Wilmington was abuzz with worries about potential rebellion, as well as stories of those who had run off to join the British.
The British ships had been sent to meet up with a group of North Carolina Loyalists and help them secure the colony. That plan, however, had been foiled by a dramatic ambush of the Loyalist troops at Moore’s Creek Bridge. As a result, the ships spent several weeks off Wilmington while their commanders decided what to do. Soldiers often ventured up the Cape Fear River to plunder supplies from the surrounding countryside. Peters met up with the British forces during one of these expeditions and offered his services. Several dozen others did the same. Seeing their willingness to fight for the British cause, British captain George Martin created a unit for them called the Black Pioneers.
Peters served with the Black Pioneers throughout the war, was wounded twice, and eventually became a sergeant. When the fighting ended, he emigrated to Nova Scotia along with several hundred other formerly enslaved men, women and children. After facing the hardships of a cold climate, limited official assistance and unfriendly neighbors, Peters launched a campaign to convince the British government to create a place in Africa for those who wished to emigrate. Eventually, the British purchased land that became Freetown, Sierra Leone. Peters returned to Africa in 1792, more than three decades after he had been enslaved.