Crispus Attucks Day

Crispus Attucks Day

Date Observed: March 5
Location: Boston, Massachusetts, and New Jersey

Crispus Attucks was the first American to die during the Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770, a key event leading up to the Revolutionary War. For this reason, he is considered the first American fatality of the War. Crispus Attucks Day, or Boston Massacre Day, has been observed since 1771, mainly in Boston, Massachusetts. Since 1949, Crispus Attucks Day has also been a legal day of observance in the state of New Jersey.

Historical Background

Since the 1760s Britain had been imposing more and more taxes on the American colonists. The colonists protested the taxation was illegal, since they could not elect their own representatives to the British Parliament, as accorded in the British constitution. Thus, a clamoring cry helped to rally leading patriots behind the cause of America's coming Revolutionary War: "No taxation without representation!" When King George III sent British troops across the Atlantic Ocean to keep the colonists in line, the colonists responded with boycotts of British goods. Middle-class merchants and businessmen suffered the harshest losses, as did their employees and laborers.

Additionally, the advent of British troops on American shores meant that soldiers were literally headquartered among the populace, walking the same streets, frequenting the same drinking establishments, and vying for the same young ladies. There was economic competition as well, since off-duty troops looked to supplement their earnings by working part-time hours, at lower wages than locals required for full-time employment. Another cause of tension, particularly between Americans of African descent and the British, was the constant concern that the latter might conscript the former into service in the Royal Army or Navy.

On Friday, March 2, 1770, tensions came to a head outside the Old State House in Boston, Massachusetts, where a skirmish took place between some locals and British soldiers. One of those involved was Crispus Attucks. Born into slavery in nearby Framingham, he had escaped and spent nearly two decades of his adult life in and out of the Boston seaport, working on whaling ships and as a rope maker. Reputed to have a fiery temperament, Attucks also is commonly reported to have been the ringleader of the tensions that built up over the course of the next few days.

On the evening of Monday, March 5, the prior week's scuffle escalated into a full battle. First-hand accounts vary on how it all began. Some contend that church bells rang out - which at the time was a common fire alarm - and someone yelled "Fire!" that could have signaled a command to shoot. When the shooting stopped, five colonists were dead, among them Attucks. All were immediately elevated to martyrdom status, and their burial rites at Faneuil Hall days later involved 10,000 of the town's 16,000 citizens. Although customs of the time precluded it, Attucks was accorded an honored burial alongside his fallen white comrades.

This event became known as the Boston Massacre and, for those anxious to break ties with the British Crown, it became a propitious propaganda tool in their arsenal of arguments. Prior to this event, agitators for independence had carefully distanced themselves from the mobs and their street violence. Now they embraced it, sensing a chance to unite the colonists by portraying the "massacred of Boston" as heroes. Attucks's death that day in 1770 helped to turn the tide in the nation's quest for independence. Just a few years later, on April 19, 1775, at Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill, the Revolutionary War began. The colonists' fight for independence from Britain was now being fought in earnest, with American blood being shed on the battlefield christened by Attucks.

In addition to the role that Attucks played in America's road to independence, he can also be credited with inspiring others of African heritage to seek personal freedom and liberty. Authors Sydney and Emma Kaplan wrote in their book The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution, "His spirit doubtless spurred New England Blacks to openly question the anomaly of human bondage in a nation about to be born and fighting for its independence under the slogan 'Liberty or Death!'" They add that, in succeeding years, slaves commonly wrote to government officials using the argument that, in one slave's words, "We expect great things from men who have made such a noble stand against the designs of their fellow-men to enslave them."

In 1888, a Crispus Attucks Monument was erected in Boston Commons to commemorate the man, over the objections of both the Massachusetts Historical Society and the New England Historic Genealogical Society.

Creation of the Observance

The Boston Massacre and Crispus Attucks's death have been commemorated in Boston since 1771, the year following the event.

In 1858 black abolitionists in Boston set aside March 5 as Crispus Attucks Day. They believed that Crispus Attucks's contributions to America's independence from Britain had been grossly unrecognized. Not only did they feel that it was unjust for Attucks not to receive acclaim as a great American hero, they also felt that such recognition would bolster their cause, that is, help others come to the belief that blacks should not be enslaved. For an unknown number of years thereafter, abolitionists paid tribute to the man who was the first to die in the fight for his own and his fellow man's liberty.

On April 25, 1949, the state of New Jersey entered Crispus Attucks Day as a designated day of observance into its state statutes.

From 1966 to 1976 there was an annual Crispus Attucks Parade in Newark, New Jersey. During the 1990s organizers revived the event, but renamed it the African American Heritage Parade.

Observance

Each year the Boston Massacre is reenacted outside the Old State House, where a circle of cobblestones marks the historic event. The reenactors are members of two groups: the Massachusetts Council of Minutemen and Militia, representing the Americans, and His Majesty's 5th Regiment of Foot, representing the British soldiers. Attendees can also view exhibits and listen to talks at the Old State House museum.

In 1996 President Bill Clinton signed a law that directed the U.S. Mint to design and strike a commemorative Black Patriots Coin. Today Crispus Attucks's likeness adorns one side of a collectors-only available coin, while the other side depicts the still-to-be constructed Black Patriots Memorial to be symbolically situated on the capitol's National Mall. At the same time, a four-postage stamp set was approved, consisting of Attucks, Frederick Douglass, Salem Poor, and Harriet Tubman (see also Frederick Douglass Day and Harriet Tubman Day).

Contact and Web Site

Black Revolutionary War Patriots Foundation 1612 K St., N.W., Ste. 1104 Washington, DC 20006 202-452-1776; fax: 202-728-0770

Further Reading

Bradley, Patricia. Slavery, Propaganda, and the American Revolution. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999. Kaplan, Sydney, and Emma Nogrady Kaplan. The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution . Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989. Lanning, Michael Lee. The African-American Soldier: From Crispus Attucks to Colin Powell. New York: Kensington/Citadel Press, 2004. Zobel, Hiller B. Boston Massacre. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996.
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