In our current heated debates about identity politics, few misconceptions are more frustrating than the narrative of a largely white America — or a white and black America — gradually losing its core identity to waves of immigrants, decade by decade. Many of America’s minority groups were here since the founding of the United States or arrived not too long thereafter; most of us just didn’t see them depicted in the famous paintings or featured prominently in our history books.
Americans of European heritage were always the largest group in the United States, but a more thorough stroll of modern historical research reveals members of minority groups shaping the course of America at every major turn.
You can’t tell the story of America without telling the story of Crispus Attucks, a fugitive slave who had escaped from his master and had worked for 20 years as a merchant seaman and who was the first one shot at the Boston Massacre — a key precursor to the fight for American independence. Lexington and Concord are considered the first battles of the Revolutionary War, and freed slave Peter Salem, who fought at both and fired a key shot at the Battle of Bunker Hill, joined about a dozen other free blacks during that battle.
Free blacks were the first drafted in Virginia in May 1777, and quite a few drafted slave owners sent a slave to fight in their place. (Slavery was legal in all of the colonies at this time.) Also, runaway slaves could get to a Continental Army military recruiter and claim to be a free black and get away from pursuing owners. George Washington’s army wasn’t going to be picky; it needed all the help it could get.
All of this added up to more than a few black men in the ranks:
By February 1778, the survivors [of the winter at Valley Forge] were marching with white comrades through the snow, practicing Baron von Steuben’s as yet unfamiliar drill. When the Steuben-trained army proved its mettle at Monmouth in June, about 700 blacks fought side-by-side with whites. Eight weeks later, an army report listed 755 blacks in the Continental Army, including 138 Blacks in the Virginia Line.
Meanwhile, Rhode Island was desperate for men; the general assembly voted to allow slaves to enlist, promising freedom after their military service. This led to it being called “the black regiment” even though only slightly more than half the men in it were black. The regiment held off British forces during the Battle of Rhode Island while General John Sullivan’s army retreated. There are few records left of the Bucks of America in Massachusetts, but they were reportedly an all-black militia company operating in that state.
Slave James Armistead’s master freed him to join the Marquis de Lafayette’s French forces. Lafayette used him as a spy in 1781, and the unsuspecting British ultimately gave him access to General Cornwallis’s headquarters. Armistead provided key intelligence leading up to the Battle of Yorktown. Baron von Closen, a member of Rochambeau’s French army at Yorktown, estimated that a quarter of the American forces at that decisive battle were black.
Would the colonists have won that battle without those black volunteers, spies, and soldiers? Would they have won the war? Would the United States of America have become what it is today without these actions?
The fact that the American Revolution did not lead to freedom for the slaves doesn’t mean that the African Americans who fought in the Revolutionary War can be ignored. The fact that so many fought for freedom, when they were legally and socially denied that freedom by some of their own countrymen, makes their courage and determination even more inspiring. They are the definition of doing the right thing, even when their sacrifices would not be rewarded or recognized within their lifetimes.
Many Hispanics fought for the cause of American independence as well; it is not unthinkable that had the textbooks cast their view a little wider, Americans might have counted the names Galvez, Unzaga, and Mesquida among their Founding Fathers.
Today’s Americans know about Lafayette’s and France’s assistance to the colonists, but Spain also played a key role in the American Revolution. In 1777, General Bernardo de Gálvez, governor of Spanish Louisiana,
sent $70,000 worth of goods (medicine, uniform fabric, weapons, cartridge boxes) up the Mississippi River to the Ohio River to Pittsburgh, and on to Philadelphia.
In August 1779, Spain finally declared war on Great Britain, and Gálvez was free to act openly. He knew that his best chance of success was to strike first by surprise. Within a month, he had captured all four British forts in the lower Mississippi including Baton Rouge and Natchez. He captured 550 enemy soldiers and two naval vessels, one of which was captured from land.
The Spanish governor kept the British occupied on a second front throughout the war.
Galvez’s predecessor, Luis de Unzaga, “sent 10,000 pounds of much-needed gunpowder to the colonial troops at Fort Pitt (today’s Pittsburgh) to fend off British threats in the Western Theater.” The Bilbao merchant Diego de Gardoqui, “who had a long relationship with cod brokers in Marblehead and Salem, smuggled shiploads of muskets, shoes, uniforms, blankets, and gunpowder to New England.”
Jordi Farragut Mesquida, a.k.a. George Farragut, was a Spanish-born naval officer in the Revolutionary War, fought the British in Savannah, and was captured at the siege of Charleston. He was released in a prisoner exchange and fought again at the Battle of Cowpens.
A generation later, his son, David Glasgow Farragut served in the U.S. Navy and famously shouted, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” at the Battle of Mobile Bay, Ala., during that war. He went on to become the first rear admiral, vice admiral, and admiral in the U.S. Navy. Two Washington, D.C., Metro stations are named after him.
Men of Hispanic heritage served on both sides during the Civil War, and several rose through the ranks:
157 officers have been identified, including Lt. Colonel Diego Archuleta commanding the First New Mexico Volunteer Infantry, Colonel Miguel E. Pino who commanded the 2nd New Mexico Volunteer Infantry, Colonel Jose G. Gallegos commander of the Third New Mexico Volunteer Infantry, and Lt. Colonel Francisco Perea, who commanded Perea’s Militia Battalion. Most of these units fought in the Battle of Valverde on 21 February 1862 against the forces of the Confederate States Army commanded by Brigadier General Henry H. Sibley.
Meanwhile, on the Confederate side, about 2,500 Mexican Texans joined the army: “The most famous was Santos Benavides, who rose to command the Thirty-third Texas Cavalry as a colonel, and thus became the highest ranking Tejano to serve the Confederacy.” A generation later, in the Spanish–American War, “several thousand Hispanic volunteers [fought] with the U.S. Army; Capt. Maximiliano Luna serve[d] in the first U.S. volunteer cavalry, also known as the Rough Riders, with Col. Theodore Roosevelt.”
When people think of the history of Asian Americans, they usually begin with Chinese immigrants arriving in California in the 1850s during the gold rush. But in the 1760s, Filipino laborers deserted Spanish galleons in the port of New Orleans and formed their own settlements in the bayous of Louisiana. Within a few decades, the “Manilamen” joined the forces of Andrew Jackson during the Battle of New Orleans.
According to historians, at least 58 Asian Americans ended up fighting in the Civil War, mostly on the Union side. Missionaries had begun bringing Asian-American children back to the United States, and Joseph Pierce, born in Guangzhou, China, joined the Union Army in 1861 and fought at the Battle of Gettysburg. Ah Yee Way, later renamed Thomas Sylvanus, enlisted in Philadelphia and survived nine months’ incarceration in the notorious Andersonville prisoner-of-war camp.
When the USS Maine blew up in Havana harbor, seven first-generation Japanese and one Chinese-American sailor were killed. For most of the 20th century, Filipinos were considered to be American nationals and served in the armed forces for decades, as it was considered a good route to prestige and a stable career.
Most Americans know about the abominably unjust internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War. But few have heard of the 100th Infantry Battalion, consisting mostly of Japanese Americans who had been serving in the Hawaiian National Guard before Pearl Harbor. More than 3,000 Japanese from Hawaii and 1,500 from the mainland volunteered, many of whom had families in the relocation centers. Finding itself with the sudden advantage of thousands of loyal Japanese-American volunteers, the U.S. government sent them to . . . Europe.
They were sent to North Africa in August 1943, and on September 19, 1943, landed on the beaches of Salerno, Italy. They fought valiantly throughout Italy, earning the name “Purple Heart Battalion” because of the high casualties they suffered. Over 1,000 Purple Hearts were awarded during this period.
(Also largely overlooked is the story of Mexican-American teenager Ralph Lazo, who was so outraged by the internment of Japanese Americans that he voluntarily joined them in the internment camps for two years.)
Just about every race, creed, and culture was here in small numbers. Roughly 100 Jews fought for American independence, and the armies wouldn’t have been fed and clothed without the financial support of Haym Salomon, who was captured by the British twice and escaped twice. One of the “Four Chaplains” who died saving others on the sinking transport ship USAT Dorchester during the Second World War was Rabbi Alexander David Goode.
In the 1840s, Turkish-born Hadji Ali — called “Hi Jolly” by Americans — helped the U.S. Army with an experiment of using camels to cross the great distances of the Western frontier. By 1908, New York City had more than 300 Syrian businesses and 50 Arabic-language publications. By 1915, there were 15,000 Indians in America, mostly Sikh. By 1916, Ford Motor Company in Detroit counted 555 Syrians on the assembly lines. The first mosque in the country was built in Chicago in 1922.
Just about every American history textbook includes Native Americans, but their appearances generally are limited to Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims, Little Bighorn, Sitting Bull, and perhaps Sacagawea’s travels with Lewis and Clark. They rarely mention that when Americans were fighting wars, Native Americans were almost always in the ranks. Native Americans from what was then called “Indian Territory” were recruited by Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and fought in Cuba during the Spanish–American War in 1898. When General John J. Pershing went to Mexico in pursuit of Pancho Villa in 1916, he brought Native American scouts.
More than 12,000 Native Americans served in the United States military in the First World War. Most Americans have heard of the stories of Navajo Code talkers during the Second World War; but fewer know that 44,000 Native Americans served in that war, at a time when the total Native population was less than 350,000!
You can’t accurately tell anything close to a full story of American history without spotlighting members of all of these groups — from the Harlem Hellfighters of the First World War to Jesse Owens defying Hitler’s notions of genetic superiority at the 1936 Olympic Games to Dorie Miller at Pearl Harbor to the Borinqueneers in the Korean War. There’s no transcontinental railroad without Chinese labor. And Polio would have ravaged many more Americans without Jonas Salk.
The moon landing probably wouldn’t have happened as quickly as it did without Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, the African-American mathematicians who worked for NASA as depicted in the film Hidden Figures. America’s Cold War arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles might not have been built without Chinese-born computer scientist Wen Tsing Chow.
These stories illustrate the complication of having a separate National Museum of African-American History and a National Museum of the American Indian and the proposed National Museum of the American Latino — the stories told within those walls are fundamental and inseparable parts of American history as a whole. Perhaps we would be better served with four or five massive museums telling all of these stories intermingled and connected . . . almost like a big, historical melting pot.
The American experiment always had room for all races, creeds, and cultures, and members of just about every group have had a role in defending it, fighting for it, expanding it, refining it, and bleeding and dying for it. Americans who are not “white” or who don’t see themselves as “white” have had an integral role in the country’s victories, expansions, breakthroughs, turning points, innovations, and triumphs of liberty (and indeed, some of its mistakes, failures, and uglier moments, too). Most of these groups who see themselves as “outsiders” had members in bigger positions at key moments than the popular narrative suggests.
That “Great America” that people want to bring back was more diverse, and more shaped by minorities, than most people recall or imagine.