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Happy 4th! Remembering Why Independence Day is Independence Day.

As I sit here procrastinating on making cheesecake for our Independence Day celebration later, I am reflecting on the meaning of this day and what it meant for our ancestors.

African American Revolutionary War Soldiers

For me, it hits differently. I am descended from at least two Revolutionary War soldiers: one White, Colonel French Strother, and one Black, Thomas Shaw. Shaw was an enslaved man from Culpeper, Virginia, who served as a substitute, possibly for his owner. Strother was his commander. One of Strother's sons later became a Congressman for Virginia and fathered a child with Shaw's daughter, Betsey, who was my fourth great-grandmother.


As I think about the intricacies of my blood, I also think about the intricacies of what we call freedom. What does it really mean? Moreover, who was included in the struggle for Independence, and what motivated them to fight? For my 5th great-grandfathers, the reasons were varied. Col. French Strother may have been trying to protect his family and property and stand up for a new nation. Thomas Shaw enlisted at 44 and was fighting for something else: a chance at true freedom. This freedom included the right to own his own body, think for himself, be treated like a human being, and claim the rights that the Founding Fathers guaranteed to all men in the Constitution.


I don't know if he ever truly got any of it; while he listed on the 1813 Culpeper property tax list as a free negro alongside his daughters Betsey and Mahala, by 1814, he had died. I often question what his years in freedom looked like. Did he feel free? How did he live? What I do know is that Betsey's daughter, Lucy, by Strother's son, had no questions about her status as a free Black woman. She defied the law and social norms of the time by listing her White father's name on her marriage license. When her two young sons were being abused by the White man they were indentured to in 1838, she successfully sued for them to be released from that indentureship. Freedom for Lucy was the right to protect her family, and she recognized that as a free person, she was entitled to satisfaction under the law, and her skin color should have no bearing on that. I often admire her bravery at a time when both women and people of color were totally disenfranchised in the United States.


I also think about how fortunate I am to know how my family participated in the shaping of the United States when so many others do not. I am amazed at the lack of information about how African Americans and Indigenous people fought so bravely in the Revolution and how it seems that we as a country have forgotten what it was really all about. Before there were barbecues and fireworks, there were men, women, and children of different races fighting to free us from tyranny and oppression. However, seeing current events makes me wonder if we as a country need a refresher on these sacrifices. Have we lost the true meaning of independence?



As someone reflective of how the past affects the future, I invite my readers to do their own research. However, I have a few recommendations below that I have found helpful in my understanding of the shaping and perspectives on the beginnings of our nation:


Books:

African Americans in the Revolutionary War by Michael Lee Manning

The Negro in the American Revolution by Benjamin Quarles

What is the Fourth of July to a Slave? by Frederick Douglass

Mr. Jefferson's Lost Cause: Land, Farmer's, Slavery and the Louisana Purchase by Roger G. Kennedy


TV and Movies:

Turn: Washington's Spies (AMC) (Prime)

Franklin (Apple TV+)

Jefferson in Paris (Movie)

Jamestown (PBS) (Prime)


These are just a few of my favorite reads and watches, and I hope you enjoy and learn from them, too. Happy Fourth!

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