Crispus Attucks (1723 – 1770) went down in history as the first black man to fight for the independence of America from the hands of the British. Little is known of this man, but he is credited with leading the fateful event known as The Boston Massacre, on 5 March 1770. This event is thought of by many as the backbone of the American Revolution, which paved the way for an independent America.
Attucks was born in 1723 in Framingham, Massachusetts to parents who were slaves belonging to Colonel Buckminster; many say his father was brought to America from Africa as a slave, and his mother was a Nantucket Indian also forced into slavery. Crispus reportedly had two siblings, an older sister named Phebe, and a younger brother who died from a fever when Attucks was seven years old. Crispus and his father toiled in the vast plantation fields and farms, while his mother and sister cleaned the Colonel’s house. They received no education, because the Colonel feared that literacy would eventually lead to rebellion.
Young Crispus abhorred the fact that he was a slave. He began shirking his daily duties, daydreaming instead of the day he would escape his life of servitude. The Colonel became increasingly frustrated with Attucks' lack of responsibility and finally sold him to Deacon William Brown, also from Framingham. Crispus was 16 years old at the time.
Attucks worked diligently for Brown, trading cattle and traveling to seek new business. A decade later, he escaped to freedom when he took a job as a harpoonist on a whaling ship. Despite a fugitive slave notice in the Boston Gazette, Crispus was never caught. The next twenty years of his life are unknown as they were never documented.
The American political scene changed in 1767, when the British Parliament introduced the Townshend Acts. Much to the wrath of American businessmen, these acts incurred taxes on certain imported goods like tea and paper. Tension rose even higher when 4,000 British soldiers were deployed in Boston in October 1768. The sight of British redcoats fueled the Americans’ anger.
In February 1770, a redcoat soldier shot into a crowd of mocking Americans and inadvertently killed a young boy. This prompted Crispus’ reappearance in Boston and his first noted moment in history. He rose onto a mounted platform and spoke to the American crowd about gaining freedom from the British.
On 5 March 1770, Crispus called upon Americans to march against imperial authority. His action was allegedly spurred by an event that had occurred earlier that day when an argument between a redcoat and a barber’s apprentice grew heated after the soldier refused to pay for services rendered. This finally ended in the soldier striking the apprentice with the butt of his musket. A crowd of angry witnesses gathered and Crispus led them and others to what later came to be known as the Boston Massacre.
The Boston Massacre
Attucks led a group of almost 60 patriots in a march towards King Street. They stood face to face with Captain Thomas Preston and his eight troops of the 29th Regiment. Muskets and bayonets were drawn as Crispus and his loyal followers attacked the soldiers with snowballs and sticks. When a soldier was struck down, someone cried, “Fire!” and shots rang out immediately, killing Attucks and four other patriots. This event soon became known as the Boston Massacre and Crispus, having been the first to die during the historical event, is now known its leader.
The American public has commemorated Crispus Attucks in many ways. Historians claim that several days after his death, a funeral procession was attended by an estimated 10,000 people to the Old Granary Burial Ground where Crispus was buried. Paul Revere (1734–1818) engraved the famous print known as ‘The Boston Massacre’ just 21 days after Crispus' death; while the main purpose of the engraving was to create propaganda for the American Revolution, it also serves as an informal memorial to Crispus as it includes the words "The Bloody Massacre" at the top of the engraving. Poet John Boyle O’Reilly (1844–1890) described Crispus as being ‘the first to defy, and the first to die’ in one of his poems.
In 1888, the Crispus Attucks Monument was built on Boston Common. The Black Patriots Coin Law was enacted in 1996, which paved the way for the production of the Black Revolutionary War Patriots Silver Dollar coin in 1998, honoring of all African American patriots who played a role in the foundation of America, including Attucks.