Women of Washington

Communicating America’s Founding Principles

Women of Washington is an educational organization with a focus on understanding local, national, and global issues that are critical to our world today.


By Judy Leithe, Contributing Editor 

Approximately five percent of the Massachusetts soldiers at the Battle of Bunker Hill (June 17, 1775) were free black men, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior.  One such man was Salem Poor from Andover, Massachusetts.  As the War of Rebellion became inevitable he, and fellow New Englanders, rallied to the patriot cause for freedom from the British Crown, and joined the newly formed Continental Army. 

Massachusetts didn't officially abolish slavery until 1865 with the passage of their Thirteenth Amendment.  However, slaves were able to buy their freedom even years earlier.  in 1769 Salem Poor became a free man at a price of twenty-seven pounds, which represented one year's salary for the typical working man.  He later married Nancy, a free African-American woman, and they had a son, Jonah.  Like so many other men, Poor had to leave his family when he enlisted to fight against the British in George Washington's daring and provocative battle at Bunker Hill, as well as battles at Saratoga, and Monmouth. 

The Massachusetts State Archives has an historic petition, which was submitted to the General Court in December 1775, just six months after the Battle of Bunker Hill.  In the document a soldier described the actions of Salem Poor as, "...he behaved like an experienced officer...and he was a brave and gallant soldier."  As further testament, the document was signed by Colonel William Prescott and thirteen other officers who were present at this crucial battle.  Of the close to 3,500 colonists who participated at Bunker Hill, no other man was singled out in this manner.

Throughout the northern colonies, it has been estimated that at least 5,000 black soldiers fought on the Patriot side of the war.  The British were eager to exploit the vulnerability of the southern slaveholders, whose population ratio between whites and blacks in 1775 was nearly 1:1.  The British Governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, issued a proclamation promising to free any slave of a "rebel" who could make it to the British lines.  Those who hazarded the journey soon found that they were put to work as cooks, camp cleaners, and tending to the wounded.

Many of the Founding Fathers, who risked "their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor" were committed to a nation where "All men are created equal..."  Their intention was to unite thirteen very independent colonies under one constitution.  Many people in the small colonies mistrusted the large ones; the larger colonies felt they deserved more representation because of their size; some had their own currencies; and, there were even border skirmishes between some colonies.   The Founder's task was monumental, and their success was deemed a miracle by most present at the Continental Convention in 1776.  

Their vision of equality was clear from the beginning.  John Adams, from Massachusetts, was always vehemently opposed to slavery and, by 1775, Benjamin Franklin became the President of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society.  The Founders from southern colonies were born into the plantation culture, where their agriculturally-based economy was, at that time, absolutely dependent upon slavery. 

A word about George Washington and slavery: He was born in Virginia and after his father's death, inherited property and slaves when he was twelve years old.  As his holdings grew, through further inheritances as well as marriage, the number of slaves grew also.  Washington's feats of heroism and sacrifice on behalf of his country are unparalleled.  But slavery weighed heavily on his mind as he balanced the life of a Virginia gentleman with the demands of war, and later, his presidency.  While having to learn to be a slave holder, Washington cared about the welfare of his slaves.  Historian Henry Wiencek writes that in 1790, Washington built a brick greenhouse structure, "...an architecture of great beauty and permanence...replacing old, ramshackle slave housing."  Wiencek writes that, "Freeing his slaves is one of Washington's greatest legacies."  In his will, Washington emancipated his slaves, while providing support for elderly or ill slaves for the rest of their lives.  He left instructions for slave children to be taught to read and write, as well as proficiency in a useful trade, and to be freed by the age 25.