Racial identity of ‘Black Sam’ debated

Racial identity of ‘Black Sam’ debated

When the Continental Congress passed a resolution barring Black men from serving in the American army, one of the first heroes of the Revolution was an African-American, Crispus Attucks, who died in the 1770 Boston Massacre.

Surprised by the large number of slaves who responded to a British offer of freedom for all slaves who joined their forces, George Washington approved Black enlistments.

After the war, General Washington came to New York City to say farewell to his officers at a restaurant owned and run by Samuel Fraunces, a successful Black businessman from the French West Indies. When Washington moved to New York and then Philadelphia as the nation’s first president, he chose Fraunces to be his chief steward.

“Black Sam” Fraunces (1734-1795), who was renowned for his good food and business savvy, was also a spy and loyal friend to Washington, who lauded him as a patriot.

“You have, invariably through the most trying times, maintained a constant friendship, an attention to the cause of our country and its independence and freedom,” wrote Washington to Fraunces of their relationship.

Today, nearly 214 years since Frances’ death here in Philadelphia, he lies buried in an unmarked grave in St. Peter’s Episcopal Church cemetery located at Third and Pine streets in the heart of Society Hill.

Around the corner, a Pennsylvania state historical marker at Second and Dock streets marks the location of last tavern Fraunces operated following his retirement from the presidential household.

Frances ran the business for about a year until his death at age 61.

For over 30 years, Charles Blockson, historian and curator emeritus of the Blockson Collection at Temple University, has been documenting the story of Fraunces, his personal relationship with one of America’s most powerful men and the legacy that has continued with some of his over 500 descendents.

Blockson, author of “The Liberty Bell Era: The African American Story (Insight, $19.99),” along with the help of genealogist C. R. Cole have confirmed that Fraunces was born in the West Indies of African and French ancestry.

Cole, author of “Samuel Fraunces ‘Black Sam’ (Xlibris, $19.99),” has been researching the free Blacks living within the boundaries of Pennsylvania before the Civil War for the last 20 years.

Both the historian and the genealogist are of the opinion that Fraunces and his descendents are long overdue their acknowledgement as celebrated African Americans.

While the 1790 New York Census lists Fraunces (who until 1776 called himself Francis) as having been white and a slaveholder, other historians have claimed that references to “Black Sam’s” racial identity may instead refer to his temper or appearance from working in the kitchen.

“He should be given his due, so to speak,” said Cole. “Even within his family, I think the thing I noticed the most that you can explain a lot, but that’s not saying he’s not African in origins. And when you say it does not matter, what you’re saying is that it’s all going away. It dismisses a whole part of colonial America, at the same time because then you dismiss the fact that most of the skilled labor was African American.”

One of the oldest colonial structures in New York City today is the Fraunces Tavern, near Wall Street, which still serves as a restaurant and revolutionary era museum.

According to Cole, early in the museum’s history, a reporter wrote of a portrait that used to depict Frances at his namesake tavern and “described him with curly brown hair, a slight double chin and dark black eyes.

That’s missing now. What they have in its place is some guy in a white powder wig and a blue velvet coat with green eyes and no hint of a double chin. And that’s their biggest piece of proof that he’s not African American.”

While some historians have cited that there are no 18th-century references of Fraunces’ African descent, Blockson notes that “many fair-skinned persons of African descent were presumed as white from appearance unless their racial identity is known.

“While researching the story of his life, it was discovered that Fraunces’ racial identity was recorded as Negro, colored, Haitian Negro, Mulatto, ‘fastidious old Negro’ and swarthy. Fraunces was immortalized in Philip Freneau’s 1786 book of poems as ‘Black Sam.’ He was familiarly called by his nick name because of his tan complexion and his tight, curly hair. Keeping with the time, he often wore a white, powdered wig.”

The Fraunces family history includes the heroic act of “Black Sam’s” daughter, Elizabeth “Phoebe” Fraunces, whose beauty helped unravel the treachery of a British double agent’s plot to murder Washington and several military officers by adding a poison to a dish of peas placed before Washington.

She whispered to Washington the nature of the contents. Washington, according to tradition, threw the peas out of the window where some chickens were feeding. The chickens picked the peas and fell dead.

Thomas Hickey later confessed to the assassination plot and on June 28, 1776, was hung before a crowd of 20,000 people.

In 2003, the rediscovery of The President’s House at Fifth and Market streets further highlighted the role Fraunces played in the nation’s past and future into the 21st century, as Blockson explained. “One of Samuel Fraunces grandsons, William D. Kelly (1814-1890), whom they called ‘Pig Iron,’ was one of the founders of the Republican Party supporting Lincoln and also founded the Union League. He was a friend of African people. He also helped organize the U.S. colored troops at Camp William Penn.”

So, does the controversy over the racial identity of Fraunces continue to deny him his proper place in American history as a person of African descent?

The anonymous Society Hill gravesite of an acknowledged American patriot who was a right-hand man to the father of this country serves as a sour reminder of this nation’s conflicted stance on race.

“There was no question of his origin because certainly the daughter was still in the area,” stated Cole. “Phoebe and her husband had a large successful boarding house for years in Philadelphia. I’d go out on a limb and say the grave is probably not marked intentionally.”


Source:  Philadelphia Tribune

Date: March 22, 2009

Byline: Bobbi Booker


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