African American Studies The Revolutionary War and African Americans
Jessica Millward
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 June 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0048


Despite the prolific growth in the field of African American studies, scholarship on African Americans and the American Revolution remains woefully thin. This article therefore provides references to classic texts as well as newer monographs on the subject of blacks during the Revolutionary War period. Classic historical works on the subject questioned the existence of slavery within the context of the War of Independence. When African Americans were discussed, the focus was on those free and enslaved African Americans who fled with the British after the war. Much of this scholarship has centered on African American men and their complex relationship with the goals of the Revolutionary War. In the 1980s Jacqueline Jones, Mary Beth Norton, and Sylvia Frey challenged this male-focused interpretation of the American Revolution. Discussing the revolutionary experience also shifted the focus from the enslaved to free blacks. The work of Gary B. Nash, most especially, constituted part of a body of scholarship focusing on region-specific studies of free African Americans in rural areas. Nash again influenced the scholarship by suggesting that class, like region, impacted the experience of African Americans during the war. The newest set of questions about the Revolutionary War and African Americans centers on several intertwined questions: What then was the American Revolution to African Americans? How were their lives shaped by the war? Likewise, how did their experience shape the dialogue of liberty and freedom in Revolutionary War–era America? Moreover, how did preexisting conceptions of liberty shape African Americans’ resistance prior to, during, and after the American Revolution? How did African Americans use the rhetoric of the American Revolution to advance their own claims to freedom? Today, when many view the gains won by the Civil Rights movement under threat of dismantlement, questions concerning the liberty of African Americans are presented in the context of a larger struggle for freedom.

Primary Sources

Despite the fact that the vast majority of African Americans could not read or write, primary sources produced by or about Africans and African Americans during the Revolutionary War era demonstrate the black community’s long commitment to freedom. Fortunately, Sidney Kaplan has catalogued the range of primary sources used to construct an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in a work titled The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution, 1770–1800 (Kaplan 1973). Autobiographies of Africans and African Americans provide a unique glimpse into life during the Revolutionary War era. Taylor 1999, a collection of narratives by the enslaved and formerly enslaved, provides a window into how Africans interpreted America during the colonial and Revolutionary War periods. One of the most valuable eyewitnesses to the American Revolution, Phillis Wheatley has left her collected works, edited by Vincent Carretta (Wheatley 2001). In addition to personal experiences, African Americans penned literary works, such as poetry, songs, speeches, and political tracks. Examples of these documents can be found in Wesley 1971, Rose 1999, Gates and Smith 2014, and Brooks and Saillant 2002. These volumes contain a vast range of primary documents, some of which have never before been published in their entirety. Scholars have also looked for the voice of African Americans in legal documents. Elizabeth Donnan has edited what is probably one of the most important collections on slavery and the era of the American Revolution (Donnan 1969). Schweninger 1999 includes an assortment of petitions brought to southern legislatures by African Americans suing for freedom. Finally, but certainly not least, a number of online databases display transcripts and images of historical documents. The Black Loyalists web page, for example, assembles some of the most important documents regarding those who fled with the British and went on to settle parts of Canada and Sierra Leone.

  • Black Loyalists.

    This website is a repository of historical data on the African American refugee Loyalists whose names are recorded in the Book of Negroes of 1783. The site also provides images of primary sources such as the Treaty of Paris and Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation as well as a list of those who applied to migrate to Sierra Leone. Spotlights on individual black Loyalists are also included.

  • Brooks, Joanna, and John Saillant, eds. “Face Zion Forward”: First Writers of the Black Atlantic, 1785–1798. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2002.

    This important volume contains primary sources about black writers who lived in Nova Scotia, including John Marrant’s Journal (1790), which covers the 1785–1790 period and is reprinted nowhere else. This volume will prove indispensable to those researching the period. The volume brings together sources that often do not appear together, such as those discussing Christianity and the early foundations of black radicalism.

  • Donnan, Elizabeth, ed. Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America. New York: Octagon, 1969.

    Donnan’s volume brings together some of the most relevant records related to the black experience in what was to become the United States.

  • Gates, Henry Louis, and Valerie A. Smith, eds. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 3d ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2014.

    This volume includes key literary works by Lucy Terry, Phyllis Wheatley, and others. While parts duplicate information found in Taylor 1999 and Wheatley 2001, the Norton volume provides a chronological overview of important literary works written by people of African descent in America during the Revolutionary War period. Entries include spirituals, work songs, poetry, autobiographies, and speeches.

  • Kaplan, Sidney. The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution 1770–1800. Washington, DC: National Portrait Gallery, 1973.

    A companion volume to an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery of the same name. Here in one place one finds a visual display of images documenting African American life during the Revolutionary War era. Of note is a lithograph reprint of the Boston massacre, drafts of the Declaration of Independence, and the likenesses of Africans and African Americans who appeared in individual portraits as well as those whose images were captured as they stood next to Revolutionary War leaders. Scholars interested in the experience of blacks in the military will find a discussion of the two black regiments of the Continental army as well as one from Haiti fighting for the French. Republished and expanded in Sidney Kaplan and Emma Nogrady Kaplan, The Black Presence in the American Revolution (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989).

  • Rose, Willie Lee, ed. A Documentary History of Slavery in North America. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1999.

    Like the collection in Donnan 1969, this volume contains a broad range of documents related to and from the perspective of African Americans. Significant documentation on African Americans during the American Revolution is included.

  • Schweninger, Loren, ed. Race, Slavery, and Free Blacks: Petitions to Southern Legislatures, 1777–1867. Bethesda, MD: University Publications of America, 1999.

    Expertly highlights the petitions of African Americans seeking freedom from their owners from the period of the American Revolution to the advent of the Civil War. This first volume surveys petitions for freedom that proved sufficiently influential to be included in the legislative records of southern states.

  • Taylor, Yuval, ed. I Was Born a Slave: An Anthology of Classic Slave Narratives. 2 vols. Chicago: Lawrence Hill, 1999.

    This impressive array of narratives provides the voice of enslaved Africans in North America from the colonial era to the Civil War period. Some narratives most relevant to the American Revolution include those of James Albert Ukawsaw, Gronniosaw, William Grimes, and Olaudah Equiano.

  • Wesley, Dorothy Porter. Early Negro Writing, 1760–1837. Boston: Beacon, 1971.

    Dorothy Porter Wesley’s collection is a canonical celebration of edited primary sources. Political tracts such as those authored by self-help organizations and literary works by the formerly enslaved show the complicated life of Africans and African Americans in Revolutionary War–era America.

  • Wheatley, Phillis. Complete Writings by Phillis Wheatley. Edited by Vincent Carretta. New York: Penguin, 2001.

    Wheatley’s poetry and letters directly address the experiences of the war—for example, she wrote a poem to George Washington. Freed upon the death of her owner, Wheatley depended on a network of British patrons; after the Revolution, the network broke down and she died in poverty. The theme of independence and freedom is one that runs through all her works.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.