By Mitch Kachun
Crispus Attucks is a name that twenty-first century American schoolchildren usually learn in their introduction to the American Revolution and its heroes. Attucks—a man of African and Native American descent—was the first American colonist to die in a confrontation with British troops at the Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770. He is widely acknowledged as the first casualty of the American Revolution and, since the 1840s, he has been used to symbolize African-American patriotism, military service, sacrifice, and citizenship. This essay traces how Attucks’s presence in public memory has shifted over the past two hundred fifty years, as various constituencies attached a wide range of meanings to his life and story. Understanding how Crispus Attucks’s story has been incorporated into—or excised from—the story of America’s Revolution illustrates both the constructed nature of historical narratives and the central role of race in the nation’s history.[i]
Little is known about Attucks’s life. Most likely he was born around 1723 about twenty miles west of Boston, and was enslaved until he liberated himself in 1750, after which he worked as a sailor and around the docks along the Atlantic seaboard.
Yet over nearly two and half centuries, Crispus Attucks has become many things to many people—hero, villain, sellout, or an irrelevant nobody who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. During the trial of the British soldiers who killed him, defense attorney (and future president) John Adams vilified Attucks as a disreputable outsider “to whose mad behavior . . . the dreadful carnage of that night is chiefly to be ascribed.”[ii] Other Bostonians, however, held annual March 5 commemorations from 1771 to 1783 that portrayed Attucks and the other Massacre victims as patriotic martyrs and symbols of British abuses, though Attucks’s race was never mentioned. The victims were presented collectively as (presumably white) citizens struck down by a tyrannical standing army. After independence was achieved, Attucks and the other victims no longer were needed to serve that purpose. The Boston Massacre retained its place in the story of the Revolution, but none of the victims attracted public notice for the next half-century.
As the nation began to pay greater attention to Revolutionary heroes after the 1820s, several popular histories told the story of the Massacre and identified Attucks racially for the first time since the 1770 trial.[iii] When Attucks re-entered public discourse during the 1830s, he was often presented, not as a patriot martyr, but as part of a disreputable mob that threatened the social order and basically got what they deserved. But this public attention aroused the interest of African-American activists who were beginning to forge a more organized biracial antislavery movement. Black abolitionist William C. Nell resurrected Attucks during the 1840s—conveniently ignoring both his Native American ancestry and the four colonists who died along with him—and Attucks went from being largely forgotten to being one of their movement’s most important symbols of black patriotism and citizenship.[iv]
Because so little could be verified about Attucks’s life, both white and black commentators constructed the Crispus Attucks that suited their respective agendas. Between the 1880s and 1950s, most whites tended either to ignore Attucks or vilify him, echoing John Adams’s characterization of Attucks as an unsavory firebrand of disorder. African-Americans continued to commemorate him, fabricating a set of convenient fictions that highlighted his patriotism and burning desire for freedom. At times whites and blacks came together to laud Attucks, as when a monument was erected in Boston in 1888 and when Massachusetts designated March 5 as Crispus Attucks Day, an official state holiday, in 1932. But more often Attucks’s memory was segregated. He virtually disappeared from mainstream History textbooks between the 1880s and 1960s, while a series of black writers constructed an idealized Attucks: he was literate and well versed in political philosophy; a lover of universal freedom; an intimate confidante of Boston’s Sons of Liberty; an inspirational public speaker at anti-British rallies; a daring and selfless patriot who sacrificed his life to build a new nation promising liberty for all. There is no evidence for any of these assertions.[v]
Thanks to the broadening post-WWII civil rights movement, by the early 1960s, Attucks finally began to reappear in mainstream textbooks, typically as a token acknowledgment of black participation in the Revolution, a pattern that accelerated with the 1970s enthusiasm for all things bicentennial. Yet many Americans resented even this superficial inclusion of Attucks in the nation’s school curricula. Historian Thomas A. Bailey complained in 1968 that “pressure-group history of any kind is deplorable, especially when significant white men are bumped out to make room for much less significant black men in the interests of social harmony.”[vi]
While most black spokespersons presented Attucks as a black American hero, some, like Black Power proponent Stokely Carmichael, called Attucks “a fool” and a racial sellout who died for white people while his own people were still enslaved.[vii] In 1976, Jim Beam sought to appeal to black consumers with a commemorative bicentennial bottle of 100-proof bourbon, bearing the likeness and story of Attucks and the Massacre. In the mid-1990s, a group of white Maryland high school students named their thrash-metal band “Crispus Attucks” in homage to his rebellion against repressive authority. In 1998, the United States mint issued a coin commemorating black Revolutionary patriots and the 275th anniversary of Attucks’s birth. More recently, historians Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh constructed an Attucks emblematic of the multiracial working classes who helped “create movement from below toward revolution” in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world. In the twenty-first century, an African American-led unit of the Minuteman Movement patrolling the nation’s southern borders to stem the tide of illegal immigration calls itself the Crispus Attucks Brigade, and another black political group in Texas calls itself the Crispus Attucks Tea Party.[viii]
And Attucks’s connection with violence in the public streets has not gone unnoticed in the 21st century. In 2000, during a debate over whether to name a bridge for Attucks in Framingham, Massachusetts, historian Pauline Maier associated him with an all-too-common image in American public culture: “Attucks,” she said, “is said to have gone out into the street waving a cordwood stick about the thickness of a man’s wrist, leading a crowd of about 20 or 30 soldiers. Sounds like a thug to me.”[ix] On Attucks Day in 2015, political journalist Amy Goodman had a different take, connecting Attucks with the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri: “From Crispus Attucks to Michael Brown 245 years later,” Goodman wrote, “two things remain clear: We never know what sparks a revolution. And black lives matter.”[x]
Over the past two and a half centuries, Crispus Attucks has been a malleable figure in American memory. Because there is so little evidence about his life, he is a virtual blank slate upon which different people at different times have inscribed a wide variety of meanings. Antebellum black abolitionists cast Attucks as a patriot martyr, a heroic figure whose sacrifice started the nation on its march toward independence and embodied arguments for African-Americans’ rights to full and equal citizenship. Others made him a rabble-rousing ruffian; some a disreputable outsider; some an Uncle Tom who sold out his race. Some simply tried to erase or ignore him altogether or trivialize his ostensible contribution. He has been treated as fighter of injustice, a symbol of racial unity, an exemplar of assertive manhood, or a conservative protector of national borders and opponent of government overreach. Attucks’s appropriation to bolster these varied causes demonstrates the importance of interrogating how and why we construct our stories about the revolutionary past—through commemorations, monuments, juvenile literature, textbooks, museums, and the rest. Attucks also illustrates black Americans’ struggle to incorporate their own stories and heroes into a mainstream narrative that has consistently ignored or trivialized their role in American history and culture. Attucks thus helps us understand how the stories that we tell ourselves about the past take shape, an essential process if we are to act as responsible citizens in the present.
Mitch Kachun (PhD, Cornell University) is Professor of History and Director of Graduate Studies at Western Michigan University, specializing in African-American history, memory, and historical methods. Kachun is author of First Martyr of Liberty: Crispus Attucks in American Memory (Oxford 2017); Festivals of Freedom: Memory and Meaning in African American Emancipation Celebrations, 1808-1915 (Massachusetts, 2003); and co-editor of The Curse of Caste; or the Slave Bride: A Rediscovered African American Novel by Julia C. Collins (Oxford, 2006); in addition to numerous articles and book chapters. Kachun’s current research focuses on African American journalist Charles Stewart (1867-1925), who wrote featured columns for several black newspapers in the early 20th century.
Eric Hinderaker, Boston’s Massacre (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017)
Mitch Kachun, First Martyr of Liberty: Crispus Attucks in American Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017)
Mitch Kachun, “From Forgotten Founder to Indispensable Icon: Crispus Attucks, Black Citizenship, and Collective Memory, Journal of the Early Republic 29:2 (Summer 2009), 249-86
Stephen Kantrowitz, More than Freedom: Fighting for Black Citizenship in a White Republic, 1829-1889 (New York; Penguin, 2012), esp. ch. 5
Margot Minardi, Making Slavery History: Abolitionism and the Politics of Memory in Massachusetts (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010)
[i] On Attucks’s place in American memory between the 1770s and 1860s, see Mitch Kachun,First Martyr of Liberty: Crispus Attucks in American Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), ch. 2-3..
[ii] The Trial of the British Soldiers, of the 29th Regiment . . . for the Murder of Crispus Attucks. . . . (Boston: William Emmons, 1824), 116.
[iii] On American interest in the Revolution after the 1820s, see Michael Kammen, A Season of Youth: The American Revolution and the Historical Imagination (New York, 1978), 41-45, 78-81; Len Travers, Celebrating the Fourth: Independence Day and the Rites of Nationalism in the Early Republic (Amherst, Mass., 1997); David Waldstreicher, In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776-1820 (Chapel Hill, 1997); Andrew Burstein, America’s Jubilee (New York, 2001); Alfred F. Young, The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999). Works discussing Attucks in this period include James Hawkes, A Retrospect of the Boston Tea-party, with a Memoir of George R. T. Hewes, a Survivor of the Little Band of Patriots who Drowned the Tea in Boston Harbour in 1773 (New-York, 1834), 28-32; B. B. Thatcher, Traits of the Tea Party : Being a Memoir of George R. T. Hewes, One of the Last of its Survivors : with a History of that Transaction, Reminiscences of the Massacre, and the Siege, and other Stories of Old Times (New York, 1835), 103-104; Charles Botta, History of the War of the Independence of the United States of America, Vol. 1, Trans. George Alexander Otis (Philadelphia, 1820), 159-60; Samuel Goodrich, The First Book of History for Children and Youth, by the Author of Peter Parley’s Tales (New York, 1831), 104-105.
[iv] Attucks’s name was at times mentioned in published references to the Boston Massacre, but he was never identified racially between 1770 and 1820. His name and his racial identity only became widely known after the publication of William C. Nell’s Services of Colored Americans in the Wars of 1776 and 1812 (Boston, 1851) and The Colored Patriots of the Revolution (Boston, 1855). Attucks’s erasure and rediscovery is discussed in Kachun, “From Forgotten Founder to Indispensable Icon: Crispus Attucks, Black Citizenship, and Collective Memory,” Journal of the Early Republic 29:2 (Summer 2009), 249-86. For an early negative portrayal of Attucks, see Samuel Goodrich, The First Book of History for Children and Youth, by the Author of Peter Parley’s Tales (New York, 1831), 104-105. Goodrich’s book went through numerous editions between the 1830s and 1850s.
[v] See, for example, William Wells Brown, The Black Man, His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements (Boston, 1863), 108-109; William J. Simmons, Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising (Cleveland, 1887), 103-106; George Washington Williams, History of the Negro race in America from 1619 to 1880 (New York, 1883); Elizabeth Ross Haynes, Unsung Heroes (New York: Du Bois and Dill, Publishers, 1921), 228-31; Bessie Landrum, Stories of Black Folk for Little Folk (Atlanta: 1923), Preface (n.p.), 70-72; Arthur Huff Fauset, For Freedom: A Biographical Story of the Negro (Philadelphia: Franklin Publishing and Supply Co., 1934 ), 14-20, quoted at 14, 16-18.
[vi] Thomas A. Bailey, “The Mythmakers in American History,” Journal of American History, 55:1 (June 1968), 6-17.
[vii] Stokely Carmichael, “Speech given at Garfield High School, Seattle, Washington, April 19, 1967” (transcript), University of Washington Instructional Resource Center <http://courses.washington.edu/spcmu/carmichael/transcript.htm> accessed Oct. 20, 2014.
[viii] Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston, 2000); Marcus Rediker, “The Revenge of Crispus Attucks; or, the Atlantic Challenge to American Labor History,” Labor Studies in Working Class History of the Americas 1:4 (2004), 35-45, quoted at 38. One representative album of the band “Crispus Attucks” is titled Destroy the Teacher (Soda Jerk Records, 2000). Biographies include Dharathula H. Millender’s very popular and grossly inaccurate Crispus Attucks: Boy of Valor (Indianapolis, 1965). Perhaps the most widely known poem was John Boyle O’Reilly’s “Crispus Attucks,” which was read at the unveiling of the Boston Massacre monument on Boston Common in 1888. On Attucks as representative of black soldiers in the United States military, see, for example, Michael Lee Lanning, ed., The African-American Soldier: from Crispus Attucks to Colin Powell (Secaucus, N.J., 1997) and Gail Buckley, American Patriots: The Story of Blacks in the Military from the Revolution to Desert Storm (New York, 2001); “Crispus Attucks Tea Party is the First Black Tea Party to Form in Houston,” <http://www.teapartytribune.com/2011/01/24/crispus-attucks-tea-party-is-the-first-black-tea-party-to-form-in-houston/>, accessed 30 Nov. 2012.
[ix] Pauline Maier quoted in Benjamin Wallace-Wells, “Revolt Revisited: Framingham Bridge Flap Revives Issue: Was Attucks a Colonial Hero or Thug?” Boston Globe, February 9, 2000
[x] Amy Goodman, “From Crispus Attucks to Michael Brown: Race and Revolution,” truthdig.com, March 4, 2015 <https://www.truthdig.com/articles/from-crispus-attucks-to-michael-brown-race-and-revolution/>, accessed Feb. 11, 2018.