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Black Sons of the Revolution Remembered

Yorktown's black history was commemorated two ways last week.

On Thursday afternoon, a new five-foot monument was dedicated in front of Yorktown's historic First Presbyterian church on Route 202 in honor of 40 black soldiers of the American Revolution who, 201 years ago, died fighting 300 British regulars tat the Davenport House in the Croton Heights section of Yorktown.

The ceremony got underway at 1 p.m. and lasted for two hours on a bright spring day as representatives of both local and state government met to honor the dead soldiers and bury once and for all the myth that black Americans were never involved in this country's fight for freedom.

The ceremony began inside the Presbyterian Church, and included speeches from Yorktown Supervisor Nancy Elliott; Rhode Island Black Heritage Society Executive Director Rowena Stewart; Afro-American Cultural Center Director John Harmon; Brigadier General John W. Kelly (on behalf of the governor of Rhode Island); Greenberg School Superintendent Dr. Robert Frelow, the only black superintendent of schools in Westchester County; Lakeland school superintendent Dr. Leon Bock and Yorktown superintendent Dr. Richards Greene.

After the Negro National Anthem, sung by Bessie Ann Hopkins, the ceremony moved solemnly outdoors for wreath laying ceremonies next to the monument that Harmon and Ruby Wright of Yorktown had made a reality through hard work and fund-raising. Together, Harmon and Wright served as co-chairmen of the Planning Committee for the First Rhode Island Regiment dedication that championed the idea of placing the black members of the regiment into their proper place in history.

On Wednesday night speaking before a small gathering of town officials, teachers, and history buffs, Edward Meyers, Vice Chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, announced his board's intent to add cultural and racial relationships as a mandated subject for teaching in public schools in New York State.

While Thursday's affair was a formal ceremony, Wednesday's session, which took place in the court room of the Yorktown Town Hall, was not. John Harmon, Executive Director of the Valhalla-based Afro-American Cultural Foundation, had set up the meeting to explain to the press the significance of seeking, finding and using history about black Americans.

Local historian Cortlandt Pell Auser described the Davenport House massacre, where 40 black soldiers of the 300-member First Rhode Island Regiment of General George Washington's army had died, as "history shoveled in and covered over."

Auser re-told the history of the skirmish that occurred at the historic Davenport House, which to his day bears silent witness to the event with the tell-tale bullet holes from the battle still implanted in the walls of the home.

According to Auser, the battle was an ambush that grew out of a larger battle connected with defending the Pines Bridge crossing of the Croton River. The 40 men, quartered just for the night at Davenport house, died defending their commanding officer Colonel Christopher Greene. They were outnumbered 5 to 1.

 Greene and his assistant, Major Ebenezer Flagg, who were both white, are buried at Yorktown's First Presbyterian Church. A large monument was installed some 80 years ago, commemorating the two white men's' bravery. On Thursday, the bravery of the 300 black soldiers who served under them was finally recorded in a similar fashion with a monument erected next to Greene's memorial.

Auser explained that he had lived in the Davenport house for four years and had made an exhaustive search of the grounds looking for the common shallow grave reported to have been dug a the site for the 40 soldiers. Since none was found, it is assumed they are buried beneath the concrete floor of a garage built nearby.

Meyers added some historical facts. The First Rhode Island Regiment, he explained, was established by the Rhode Island Assembly in 1778 for " every able bodied Negro who wanted to enlist." And if they were slaves, as most were, they were promised their freedom if they fought. The unit was disbanded in 1783 and those members who survived were left to "get home as best they could without pay," said Meyers.

According to Meyers, the Board of Regents advocates using history to teach intercultural education. He noted that there have been many unpleasant racial incidents in various parts of the state and the Department of Education's investigations of these incidents reveal the causes to be "complete ignorance between racial groups." Meyers said black history should be made known to the Caucasian community at the town, state and federal levels.

Meyers said the Regents are proposing that the state Department of Education mandate the teaching of "relationships between cultures and races in the state and country." If adopted, the curriculum will be introduced at the elementary school level and intensified at the secondary school level. Public hearings on the new mandate will be held in September throughout the state. The final step in the procedure is a vote by the Regents scheduled for late fall.

Joanne Dufour, President of the Westchester Council for the Social Studies and a ninth grade social studies teacher, said that commemorating the event involving the black Revolutionary War heroes was one way of teaching young people to understand themselves. She said that at the fourth grade level, the new intent in the teaching of social studies is to spend the entire year on local history. "This event in Yorktown teaches all of us, black and white, to know who the heroes were that made their community," she said. "As teachers, it is important to work together with local historians like Mr. Auser to produce a tangible curriculum for young people because it isn't there yet."

The meeting itself then evolved into a free and open exchange of feelings and ideas. Wright, a fifth grade teacher at P.S. 87 in the Bronx, attended the meeting and noted that as recently as last February she had no idea there was any black history connected with the town she has lived in for the past five years. (Yorktown's black population amounts to just over two percent or 654 persons out of 31,988.)

"You talk about white people not knowing about black history, a lot of blacks don't know about blacks." Wright observed. "That information does not come easily."

Wright added that once she learned about the 40 black soldiers killed at Davenport House, she headed home and gathered up news clippings and became excited as she began to learn the black history connected with her new home town. "This got me doing homework," she said. "I got the books out to make me more knowledgeable for the children in my class. I called other black friends in during my research and discovery and they also became interested and excited."

Wright told about how excited her fifth grade students in the Bronx became when she relayed the story of the 40 black soldiers in Yorktown Heights. "I'm sure all this searching is going to be great," Wright said. "We've put so much into it already. So let's go!"

Kay Mosher, a lifelong resident of Peekskill, asked that the state Board of Regents present a more realistic view of slavery in its history curriculum. "It was the major industry of this country at the time," she pointed out. "No other race made such a large contribution to this country in terms of expertise, industry, talent and skill. The Regents could take away its aura of shame."

Cortland Auser then quietly and slowly read the name of some of the black soldiers who we know were at Davenport House as supplied by the Rhode Island Commission of Archives. The rest are unknown.

We can now commemorate, by name, Cato Bannister, John Greene, Jeremiah Greene, John Greene, John McDonald, Jack Minthrone, Africa Burk, and Nathaniel Weeks, Richard Sephton, Prince Watson, James Wilson, Thomas Angle, Potter Card, Beriah Clarke, Gideon Corey, Michael Doherty, Peter Daly, John Freeman, Samuel Grant, John George, Prince Jencks, the drummer, Philip Morris, Michael Macomber, Ichabod Northrup, Edward Pain, William Staffor, Joseph Thrasher, William Wilkinson, David Whitford, and Robert Gudgeon.

Source: by Nancy Gerbino, The North County News, May 19 - May 25, 1982

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