The Boston Massacre: Martyrs to American Independence

Toward evening, on March 5, 1770, Crispus Attucks, a runaway slave, led a crowd of men and boys into a confrontation with British soldiers, whose presence in Boston was sharply resented. The soldiers fired into the crowd and Attucks fell instantly, the first of five men to die in what would become known as the Boston Massacre. Patriots hailed Attucks's heroism, making him a martyr to American independence.

American blacks, both free and enslaved, would play an important role on both sides of the conflict. In November 1775, Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, issued a proclamation that any slaves who fled to British lines and assisted in defeating the rebellion would be granted their freedom. The next year, General George Washington lifted a prohibition against black enlistment in the Continental Army, opening the ranks to free black men. Some colonies also allowed slaves to win their freedom by serving the American forces.

Boston Massacre, March 5th, 1770. Color lithograph by J.H. Bufford after W. Champney, 1856. Published by Henry O. Smith, Boston.
The New York Public Library, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division.

Treasures Video: Watch a Short Film About the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Online Exhibition: African Americans and American Politics

Related Publication: Jubilee: The Emergence of African-American Culture

About the Photographs and Prints Division