As a Black American, Algernon Ward says wearing the uniform of a colonial soldier is a calling.
He and his compatriots — re-enactors who gather to tell the stories of soldiers past — portray the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, widely regarded as the first Black battalion in U.S. military history.
“They fought throughout most of the duration of the Revolution and they were there for the final victory at Yorktown,” Ward said recently, while standing with fellow historical interpreter Chuck Monroe in Trenton’s Locust Hill Cemetery, the city’s largest and oldest remaining African American burial ground.
“Those men laid their lives on the line to establish these United States of America, so putting on their uniform and telling their story is not just some kind of hobby. It’s a mission, and that is to tell the story of all of America’s founding fathers.”
Calling it “a privilege and a pleasure” to continue his part in helping bring to light the previously ignored role that people of color, both free and slave, played in the founding of America, Ward himself now has a new, unique place in the telling of that history.
Born and raised in Trenton, he regularly gives active portrayals as a colonial soldier, a Civil War soldier or as Needham Roberts, also known as the “Harlem Hellfighter” from World War I. But Ward’s own likeness is now immortalized, thanks to its inclusion in a recent painting by noted traditional academic realist painter Don Troiani, titled “Brave Men as Ever Fought.”
The work depicts Black and Native American troops in the ranks of the Continental Army as they marched past Independence Hall on their way to eventual victory at Yorktown.
Ward is rendered in the front line of the ranks a proud member of The 1st Rhode Island Regiment. He said he is “over the moon” that his likeness is included in the painting, which was commissioned by the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia (where it is now on display) and funded by the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route National Historic Trail of the National Park Service.
Talking about the modern acknowledgement that people of color were instrumental in founding this nation, Ward said, “It’s a reckoning with history that needs to happen in the United States so that we’re on firm ground.”
“We need to look history straight in the eye and then make our decision about what we think about it. We also have to avoid the temptation to evaluate people in the current context.”
Ward called into question, as an example, what he learned about first president George Washington in school.
“They didn’t mention that he had…slaves, that he resisted having Blacks in the army and then finally he relented.”
Washington’s shift in thinking, Ward said, came about after a 1775 English proclamation promising freedom for slaves of American revolutionaries who left their owners and joined the royal forces, becoming Black Loyalists.
“And by the end of the war he (Washington) had completely changed his point of view about slavery and in fact upon his death he freed his slaves,” Ward said.
Washington was the only slave-holding Founding Father to do so.
“Now does all that diminish George Washington?” Ward asked. “No it doesn’t, it just tells the truth, of the history. And you can still, after all that, still say he’s the father of our country. … He’s the essential American. Without him there probably would not be a United States, so you can tell the truth and deal with it in factual terms.”
“Brave Men as Ever Fought” is part of a special exhibition that opened Oct. 16 at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, “Liberty: Don Troiani’s Paintings of the Revolutionary War.”
The exhibition will pair Troiani’s works of art with artifacts that inspired or appear in his paintings and illuminate the story of each scene. The 40 objects on display include weapons, military equipment, textiles, manuscripts, and more, which are on loan from Troiani’s personal collection, the Museum’s collection, and other lenders.
“This scene (”Brave Men as Ever Fought”) was remembered by an elderly man named James Forten. … He wrote about the scene in a letter that he wrote in 1831 to his friend and fellow abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison,” Matthew Skic, Curator of Exhibitions for the Museum, said recently as he was putting the finishing touches on the exhibit.
“Forten was reflecting upon how men of color, men of African descent, men of Native American, descent had fought for this country to create it during the Revolutionary War as soldiers of the Continental Army, on the ships and militias.”
Skic added that Forten remembered them in his writing as “brave men as ever fought” and that, “These men and their descendants deserved the full rights and liberties promised in the Declaration of Independence.”