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"Life of George Washington - The Farmer" by Junius Stearns shows Washington standing among African-American field workers harvesting grain; Mount Vernon in the background.
Themes of the Period

Freedom and Slavery

While revolutionaries fought for freedom from British tyranny and oppression during the American Revolution, this war did not guarantee freedom for all. By the start of the American Revolution, slavery was legal and actively practiced in all Thirteen Colonies. As the conflict spread across the colonies, enslaved Black persons had to decide where to place their loyalties to ensure that they too could participate in this opportunity. Some formerly enslaved persons, such as Winsor Fry, joined the Continental Army hoping that the new nation would ensure liberty for all. Others, such as Harry Washington, ran from the men preaching about free will while actively keeping men, women, and children in servitude and joined the British. A few joined regiments like Col. Christopher Greene’s that allowed enslaved Black men to earn their freedom in exchange for their service to the Continental Army. Regardless, no matter their path, all hoped for freedom from bondage.

Stories of Freedom and Slavery

Illustrated portrait drawing of Winsor Fry

Winsor Fry

Former slave fighting as a patriot, and navigating life in a new nation

On the eve of Revolution, all thirteen rebelling colonies legally practiced slavery. Though there is no record of Winsor’s birth, it is likely that he was born enslaved. In 1773 prominent Rhode Islander Thomas Fry bequeathed “my Negro man named Windsor” to his youngest son Joseph, along with other property including several plots of land. Two years later however, Winsor joined the Continental Army as a free man.

Illustrated portrait drawing of Harry Washington

Harry Washington

A slave of George Washington who found freedom fighting for the loyalists.

People on both sides of the American Revolution were fighting for their freedom. While the American revolutionaries fought for freedom from British rule, they denied personal freedom to thousands of enslaved Black people in the American colonies. The American Revolution provided an opportunity for enslaved people to fight for their own freedom, often making difficult choices to support patriots or the British based on which side offered a better chance at freedom. For Harry, supporting the British held the promise of liberty. He was one of thousands of enslaved people who took the British up on their promise of freedom.

Illustrated portrait drawing of Christopher Greene

Christopher Greene

Leader of an integrated regiment that died on the battlefield

In February 1778 the Rhode Island Assembly announced that “every able-bodied negro, mulatto, or Indian man slave in this state” could enlist in the state line. They further stipulated that “every slave, so enlisting, shall upon his passing muster before Col. Christopher Greene, be immediately discharged from the service of his master or mistress; and be absolutely FREE, as though he had never been encumbered with any Kind of Servitude or Slavery.” This clause represented one of the few avenues to freedom for enslaved men during the era, but it was only open for a short time. The Assembly struck this clause after only four months, as the state’s slave owners petitioned for its repeal.