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Fourteen Free Patriots of Color

Fourteen Free Patriots of Color

By Jim Wood
SAR Magazine
Fall 2016, Vol. 111, No. 2

On Sept. 3, the North Carolina Society chartered its newest chapter—The Patriot Isaac Carter Chapter. This is the first chapter composed predominantly of African-American men in the Sons of the American Revolution, with the majority of its charter members being descendants of the chapter’s namesake. The story of how this chapter came to be starts at least 260 years ago, and involves the discovery of lost American history and the work of members of both the SAR and DAR.

In the early part of the 18th century, well before the American Revolution, a group of families from Maryland and Virginia migrated to the eastern shores of North Carolina in search of new farmland. These “free men of color” were seeking a new place where they were not subject to oppressive laws due to their race, and a place to live peacefully and earn their living. At the end of the Tuscarora Indian War with the Colonies, they settled in the present-day counties of Carteret and Craven, forming four small communities. There has not been documentation located to establish the dates in the early 1700s that show the exact time of the arrival of these families, but there is documentation that shows that they were there in the 1750s. Even this makes the settlements of the Harlowe area some of the earliest free African-American settlements in North Carolina. Following the Tuscarora War, these free men of color settled in the lands vacated by the Tuscarora.

After the war, the power of the Tuscarora was broken, and they retreated from the area that became Harlowe. By 1720, the migration of the Tuscarora back to New York from where they had come was accomplished. So with land easily available and in a colony that was more welcoming to African-Americans, it is reasonable to suppose that the families who settled the Harlowe area began arriving in the 1720s rather than the 1750s. We firmly believe these families have been in the eastern portion of North Carolina for at least 300 years and have always been free residents of North Carolina.

In the latter part of the 18th century, the American Revolution began. America’s Revolutionary War included Patriots from many different ethnic backgrounds, although the diversity of the first American Army has not been well publicized. Many of these early American heroes have been honored and remembered through many activities. But there was a large group of these early heroes whose contributions had been largely neglected. These were the many African-Americans who served the cause of American independence during the Revolution.

When the American Revolution began, the settlers in Harlowe were mostly farmers and were free men. They choose to send 14 of their men to fight in the Revolution for freedom from the British. These 14 free men were volunteers who chose to leave their land and families and go off to war. They fought in the battles around New York and New Jersey in the early part of the war, including Valley Forge, where the American Army was truly born. They fought in the battles in Pennsylvania, and both sieges of Charleston as well as the battles of the Southern Campaigns that ended the war. Some of these Patriots manned the garrison at Fort Hancock at Cape Lookout, the only fort constructed in North Carolina during the Revolution.

Opposite and above, at the chartering ceremony for the Patriot Isaac Carter Chapter

Following the war, these 14 Patriots returned home and some stayed in the Harlowe area while others moved on to other communities. Their experiences remained in family stories but were largely lost with the passage of time. The contribution of the Forgotten Patriots in the American Revolution is not generally known today and is rarely taught in schools.

Fast forward to late 20th century and early 21st century when a young African-American woman, Maria Cole, became her family’s genealogist and researched their history for the family reunion. She had started studying genealogy when she was 11 years old, so her interest became a passion that was near to her heart. She documented her family line back to the 1600s. Her mother had always told her the family were free people. What she did not find in her research was anyone serving in the wars in the early years of the country, even though they were free. While she was told she probably had relatives in the American Revolution, she had not found any documentation. Finally, in 2001, she visited the Daughters of the American Revolution Headquarters in Washington, D.C., and went to their library to ask for information on black soldiers. She was told at the library about a new book published by the DAR. In the section on North Carolina, she found her relatives, Absalom Martin, Isaac Carter, William Dove and five others that she had already researched, but on whom she had no military history. The DAR book showed one had applied for a pension, and another had a land bounty. Maria learned that the documents were in the DAR files, so she obtained a copy of each. She realized that she was now eligible to join the DAR and in 2003 submitted her application to join. She submitted an application for herself as well as her mother, who had always told her about the family history. She applied on the service of Absalom Martin and Isaac Carter. Maria was approved for DAR membership on Feb. 7, 2004. Later she became a docent and gave tours at the DAR museum in Washington, D.C., where one day she met Compatriot Joe Dooley.

Thus began the SAR part of this story.

After Compatriot Dooley introduced himself, he said that he understood she was a member of the DAR and that he was interested in recruiting descendants of black Patriots into the SAR. Maria noted she had a brother who was the father of three sons. Compatriot Dooley offered to sponsor them for membership into the SAR. Maria provided the documentation she had collected and her brother and his three sons joined the VA SAR.

When Dooley became president of the VA SAR in 2007-2008, he set out to place a monument to the Patriots of color in Charles City County, Virginia (See SAR Magazine, Spring 2008). After the dedication of this monument, Maria shared with him the history of her North Carolina family, and that, like the community of free people of color in Charles City County, she was descended from a community of free people of color in Harlowe, North Carolina. Maria told Joe that their involvement in the American Revolution would be lost if someone did not preserve it. Maria asked if the SAR could do something in North Carolina as we had done in Virginia. Joe committed he would see what he could do about honoring the men of Harlowe who fought in the American Revolution.

“The men and women who achieved American independence were ethnically diverse,” said Dooley. “I am very happy that the SAR recognizes this, that we honor patriots of all ethnicities, and that the membership of the SAR reflects more and more the ethnic diversity of the American people.”

President General Mike Tomme, above, attended the ceremony and installed the new chapter officers, including President Edward Earl Carter, right

Dooley became the President General of the SAR in 2013. In the PG’s reception following the Wednesday dinner at Congress, Dooley approached new North Carolina President Jim Wood, and requested that he look into the history of the 14 Patriots from the Harlowe area who served in the American Revolution, explaining that a friend of his was a descendant of the Harlowe Patriots and that she would like to see if a highway marker or some similar memorial could be President General Mike Tomme, above, attended the ceremony and installed the new chapter officers, including President Edward Earl Carter, right erected in honor of their service. Dooley requested North Carolina to take the lead in this effort, noting that such a marker or other memorial would be consistent with his PG initiative on markers, monuments and memorials. Jim accepted the project and thus began the next chapter in the story of the Patriot Isaac Carter Chapter.

Wood asked two compatriots in the eastern part of North Carolina to research the Harlowe story to see if they could locate the gravesites of the 14 Patriots and to find if a highway marker could be placed by the state. Guy Higgins and Gary Green began their investigation and determined that the graves probably could not be located due to the lack of native stones in the area suitable for use as headstones and the changing landscape from the many hurricanes that have struck the coast over the past 200 years. Gary located the George family cemetery where the burials probably took place and found they were in a swamp- like area and not easily accessible. The markers used had long since been worn away by the weather. Conversations with the North Carolina Historical Commission discouraged the placement of a highway marker because there was not a defined grave location. So a new approach had to be taken.

Meanwhile, Higgins initiated an effort to locate current-day descendants of the 14 Patriots from Harlowe to see if they would be interested in honoring their Patriot ancestors. He worked with Maria to learn the history of the area and whom he should contact for additional information about the history of the Harlowe area. He contacted Natalie Taylor, a local historian, and Debra Newton-Carter, a genealogist who had done work on the Carter family, to learn about the genealogy of the present-day descendants of the 14 Patriots and the history of the Harlowe communities.

The team of Jim, Gary and Guy arranged to meet with the local descendants, citizens, and politicians to discuss with them the possibility of erecting a marker to honor the 14 Patriots. The local community felt the best location for a marker would be the Harlowe-Havelock Senior Center at the old elementary school since it was a central location and visited by most members of the community. The memorial marker would be located on the outside wall at the main entrance. This location complemented the other plaques on the wall inside the building honoring the service of Harlowe citizens in 20th- and 21st-century conflicts. Jim, as NC president, asked the compatriots of NC to contribute toward the purchase of a marker, and the funds were raised for the purchase and installation. The memorial marker was a gift from the NC SAR to the Harlowe communities to commemorate the memory of the 14 forgotten Patriots.

On March 16, 2014, the NC SAR conducted a ceremony to dedicate the marker to the 14 free men of color who served in the American Revolution from the Harlowe communities of Craven and Carteret counties in North Carolina. The ceremony was attended by more than 200 people and brought together descendants and SAR compatriots from North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. The DAR was also strongly represented. Descendants of the 14 Patriots participated in the ceremony. National officers attending were the President General (2013-14) Joe Dooley,

The George family cemetery who was the principal speaker; and SAR Foundation President Dr. Sam Powell. Marines from the nearby Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point formed a second Honor Guard in their dress blues and presented a striking counterpoint to the North Carolina Society Color Guard in their Colonial uniforms. The combined Color and Honor Guard reminded all those present of more than 200 years of service that the members of the Harlowe communities have given to our country, service that was begun by the 14 Patriots honored in the ceremony that day.

The George family cemetery

Following the marker dedication, an effort began to identify local descendants to determine if enough interest could be generated to form a new chapter in the Harlowe area. Thus began the current chapter in the story of the Patriot Isaac Carter Chapter. The first man recruited was Ed Carter who is a native son of the North Harlowe community. Ed is a retired pharmaceutical industry executive and a former mayor of Greenville, N.C. On Aug. 8, 2015, the NC SAR hosted a ceremony honoring the first male descendant of several of those previously forgotten Revolutionary War Patriots of the Harlowe community by inducting Edward Earl Carter as one of the newest compatriots of the Society. The induction ceremony was held at the Harlowe-Havelock Senior Center. With Ed’s induction into SAR, there are now male and female descendants of these previously forgotten Revolutionary War Patriots of the Harlowe community who are members of both the Sons and the Daughters of the American Revolution.

With the induction of Ed, a three-man team was formed to focus on the Harlowe communities with the objective to form a new chapter in the area. The duties were split into a mentor, a genealogy specialist and a man to focus on recruiting in the community. The plan was to conduct a series of local genealogy workshops for men and women interested in researching their ancestors and to explain the value of SAR membership. The registrar of the New Bern DAR chapter assisted in the workshops and discussed membership with women interested in pursuing membership. The minster of a local church was contacted and he offered his church as a place to hold the meetings. A series of workshops was held every two weeks for several months to work with individuals and to explain about the SAR. Ed contacted many individuals in the community to introduce them to the SAR and encourage them to come to the workshops and apply for membership. Articles appeared in the local newspapers, and interviews were given to the local television stations. Over time, applications were submitted for membership in the SAR. The NC SAR approved the charter of the new chapter at its annual meeting in April 2016.

The 14 Free Men of Color

  • Martin Black
  • Simeon Moore
  • Isaac Carter
  • George Perkins
  • John Carter
  • Isaac Perkins
  • Joshua Carter
  • Aaron Spelman Spelmore
  • William Dove
  • Asa Spelman Spelmore
  • John Gregory
  • Hezekiah Stringer
  • Absalom Martin
  • Mingo Stringer

On Sept. 3, the Patriot Isaac Carter Chapter was chartered by the NC SAR. The chapter is named for one of the 14 Patriots from Harlowe. A crowd of approximately 230 gathered in the Havelock Event Center to enjoy a dinner of eastern barbeque and celebrate the new chapter. SAR general officers in attendance were President General J. Michael Tomme Sr. and First Lady Cilla, President General (2010-11) J. David Sympson and his wife Evelyn, President General Dooley, President General (2014-15) Lindsey C. Brock and his wife Billie, Treasurer General Warren M. Alter and his wife Nancy, Genealogist General John President General (2013-14) Joe Dooley, left, with Maria Cole and NC SAR President Jim Wood at the dedication of the marker honoring the 14 free men of color involved in the formation of our newest chapter in the SAR.”

Following the election of chapter officers, Tomme and Green installed the new officers. Then Vice President General Larry F. Fehenbaker and Tomme installed new chapter President Edward Earl Carter.

President General (2013-14) Joe Dooley, left, with Maria Cole and NC SAR President Jim Wood at the dedication of the
marker honoring the 14 free men of color

The chapter received several special gifts: a North Carolina state flag from Gov. Pat McCrory, and a portrait of Patriot Isaac Carter and D. Sinks, Vice President General Dr. Lawrence G. Fehenbaker Sr. and his wife Jeanne, and SAR Foundation President Dr. Samuel C. Powell and his wife Karen. State officers in attendance were NC SAR President Gary O. Green, GA SAR President William Allen Greenly and his wife Jane and VA SAR 1st Vice President Michael J. Elston.

The evening opened with the presentation of the colors by the SAR National Color Guard under the command of National Vice Commander Mark Anthony (SC SAR). The invocation was given by Rev. Dr. Robert Little from the Piney Grove AME Zion Church (the minister who had been so supportive of the efforts to form this chapter). The Pledge of Allegiance was led by chapter junior member James Christopher Kelley Jr.; the national anthem was sung by chapter member Alan Deline Frazier; and the SAR Pledge led by chapter member Guy M. Higgins Jr.

Following dinner, Green inducted 10 new members into the SAR and into the new chapter. Their SAR Rosette was pinned on them by Ed and Guy. Ed and Guy will transfer into the chapter as new members. Next, 14 men were introduced, whose submitted applications are at national headquarters for review and who will be members of the chapter when their applications are approved. President General (2010-11) J. David Sympson presented each member with a flag pin and President General Mike Tomme presented each with his commemorative challenge coin. Next, 11 men who are dual members of the chapter who have joined to assist the chapter as it grows were introduced.

“What an honor it was to attend this historical event and the formation of the newest SAR Chapter and our first predominately black chapter, the Patriot Isaac Carter Chapter,” said Tomme. “What a wonderful way to honor the 14 Free Patriots of Color who sacrificed their lives and took up the cause to fight for freedom against Great Britain. The descendants of these Patriots are now the members of this newest SAR Chapter. This was truly an honor for Cilla and I to attend. I would like to extend my appreciation to all of those who were Absalom Martin and their descendants that was drawn by Rollian Sharpe to represent how they probably appeared during the American Revolution. The portrait was a gift from Maria.

Greetings were brought to the new chapter from McCrory, the SAR General Officers; President General Ann Turner Dillon of the Daughters of the American Revolution; and Peggy Carney Troxell, the Vice President General of the DAR. In his remarks, Tomme stressed the historical significance of the evening’s event and the importance of the patriot education mission of the SAR. Dooley noted that our freedom was accomplished with the participation from many individuals. He encouraged the new members to become active in their community and at the state and national levels in the SAR.

Chapter President Carter addressed the audience on the goals the chapter will seek in the future: to tell the story of the 14 Patriots, to actively work with schools in the youth programs, and to tell the story of the American Revolution. He expressed the gratitude of the chapter members for the support the SAR had given to the community in the placement of the memorial marker and helping to start the new chapter in Harlowe. Ed explained that as descendants of the 14 Sons of Harlowe who served in their country’s fight for independence from Great Britain, they take great pride in their ancestors’ service. The chapter also takes great pride in being members of the SAR’s first predominantly African- American chapter and the first to be named after an African-American Patriot, Isaac Carter.

The evening closed with chapter member Elwood Becton leading in the SAR Recessional and the benediction given by Rev. Dr. Little. The National Color Guard retired the colors and the evening came to a close. A video of the chartering ceremony can be viewed on the national society’s website.

— By Jim Wood with input from Ed Carter, Guy Higgins, Maria Cole, Gary Green and Joe Dooley.

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