Reinventing Crispus Attucks for the Abolitionist Movement
by Katie Woods, MA in Public History student at Northeastern University
This post is part of a series exploring the legacy of Crispus Attucks, the first victim of the Boston Massacre. These posts were written by students in the Master of Public History program at Northeastern University. Crispus Attucks was an enslaved man of African and Native American heritage about whom little is known, but his legacy has been important to successive generations of Americans. For more information about the life and legacy of Crispus Attucks, see First Martyr of Liberty: Crispus Attucks in American Memory by Mitch Kachun (Oxford University Press, 2017).
Most Americans today recognize the Paul Revere print of the Boston Massacre. Thanks to every high school U.S. history textbook, Revere’s print is the image that comes to our minds when we think of the “Bloody Massacre” on March 5, 1770. But when we look at the famous print today, we realize that someone is missing from the scene: Crispus Attucks. Originally printed just following the event, Revere’s image completely leaves out today’s most remembered victim of the Massacre. At that time, Attucks was considered just one of the victims slaughtered by the unprovoked British Redcoats. Following the Revolution, Crispus Attucks was largely forgotten in the public memory of the Revolution; it was much easier for people to celebrate figures like George Washington, John Hancock, and Alexander Hamilton, rather than a man of mixed race whose precise origins were unknown and whose death predated the actual Revolution.
Not until the mid-nineteenth century do we see Attucks’s role in the Boston Massacre get recognized for the first time since the years before the Revolution. Leaders of the abolitionist movement used Attucks, along with other black revolutionary soldiers, as examples of a black patriot, thereby demonstrating that African Americans deserve citizenship across the country. Abolitionists not only tried to highlight the previously ignored presence of African Americans in the story of the Revolution, but they also wanted to show that African Americans were active participants in the founding of the nation. To them, Crispus Attucks wasn’t just a victim, he was a martyr for the cause of liberty and freedom.
Looking to the success of popular prints (like Revere’s) that rallied colonists in the revolutionary era, abolitionists took to creating their own images of the Boston Massacre; this time, they portrayed Crispus Attucks front and center of the visual narrative. In its exhibit Colony to Commonwealth, the Old State House displays a print that was produced within this context. “State Street Boston Massacre, March 5, 1770” is an 1856 chromolithograph by J.H. Bufford of the drawing by W.L. Champney. In this drawing, we see Crispus Attucks is not just present in the scene, but he is central in its composition. Attucks is portrayed as an active fighter, leading the pack of Bostonians in a doomed clash against the better armed British soldiers.
Champney’s drawing highlights the abolitionist movement’s message in favor of African American citizenship. It clearly shows Crispus Attucks as the first martyr of the Boston Massacre, the first fallen hero of the Revolution. If an African American was the first who died fighting for the founding of this country, then shouldn’t African Americans receive the same rights and liberties as white Americans? Abolitionists saw Attucks as the Revolutionary hero who proved that African Americans believed in the same values as white Americans and were willing to put their lives on the line for those values. While we don’t know Champney’s intentions behind this drawing, or whether he was an abolitionist, his image appears to reflect the imagery and symbolism made by abolitionists during this time.
During the abolitionist movement, African American abolitionists and activists transformed the few notable African American figures in the nation’s short history to become symbols for their larger fight for freedom. Thus, they revived the lost memory of Crispus Attucks and the Boston Massacre. While they couldn’t know much of his story, abolitionists created the Attucks persona to represent all the qualities that embodied a true American hero: patriotism, bravery, and the willingness to die for one’s beliefs. Champney’s drawing captures this ideal, referencing Revere’s print from the 1770s but reinterpreted to fit the current climate of the abolitionist struggle for African American citizenship.