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Tuesday, March 6, 2018

March 6, 2018: Boston Massacre Studying: Crispus Attucks

[On March 5th, 1770, the events that came to be known as the Boston Massacre took place on King Street. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of contexts for that pivotal pre-Revolutionary moment, leading up to a special Guest Post from my sons based on their elementary school studies of the massacre.]
On adding layers to collective memory, and what we do when we can’t know for sure.
As I mentioned in last week’s post on Revolutionary slaves, my perspective on Crispus Attucks has significantly shifted over the last few years. As I imagine is the case for most American schoolchildren, today as for many decades (if not centuries, thanks in no small measure to the Paul Revere engraving about which more later in the week), I learned in some of my earliest social studies classes that one of the first casualties of the American Revolution was an African American man. While historians now believe that Attucks’ mother was the Natick (Wampanoag) Native American slave Nancy Attucks, and his father the African-born slave Prince Yonger, that doesn’t change the basic and important fact that this Boston Massacre protester and casualty was indeed an American of color. Remembering Attucks as such, and linking the story of the Boston Massacre to this compelling side to his identity, is thus a good example of a somewhat simplified but still accurate and productive form of longstanding collective memory, and a helpful reminder that mythic images of the past can at least occasionally gibe with complex historical realities.
Yet as I also noted in last week’s post, the complex historical realities linked to Attucks include another that is generally not included in our collective memories (and certainly not in those taught to schoolchildren, at least not in my experience with either my own or my sons’ educations): he was a fugitive slave. Twenty years before the Boston Massacre, Attucks’ master William Brown, owner of a farm in Framingham, placed an ad in the Boston Gazette and Weekly Journal, seeking help capturing a runaway slave: “A Mulatto fellow, about 27 Years of Age, named Crispus, 6 feet 2 inches high, short cur'l hair, his knees nearer together than common.” Brown apparently never found Attucks, and perhaps by 1770 he had given up on the search; but perhaps not, and in any case every moment of Attucks’ subsequent life had to have been lived under the cloud of a possible return to slavery (if not far worse punishment). In the chapter on Revolutionary slaves in Exclusion & Inclusion: The Battle to Define America, I make the case that we have to understand Attucks’ presence on King Street and defiance of the British in conjunction with this crucial and under-remembered part of his identity; I can imagine few circumstances that better highlight the fragile yet vital nature of freedom than the multi-decade experience of a fugitive slave.
As for what Attucks did with those two decades of freedom between his October 1750 escape and the events of 1770, information seems to be partial and fragmented. Apparently he worked on a whaling ship for some of the early years, likely using the alias Michael Johnson; at some point he left that job to become a merchant sailor, and also seems to have worked as a ropemaker near Boston Harbor when he wasn’t aboard a ship. Perhaps we’ll learn more, although given the scanty nature of personal records for working-class Americans of the period, this might well be the most we’ll ever know about the twenty years between Attucks’ running away and his role in the Boston Massacre. That doesn’t necessarily change the facts that we do know, of course; but it does caution against extrapolating from those facts to imagine we can fully understand the 47 year-old man (if we take the age in Brown’s advertisement as accurate) who found himself clashing with British soldiers on King Street. Like so many historical figures, Attucks is and will likely remain a combination of compelling details, frustrating uncertainties, and an overarching story that reflects important histories while reminding us of the enduring gaps between the past itself and our collective memories of it.
Next massacre studying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?

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