African American “patriots” – the term used by the Sons of the American Revolution and Daughters of the American Revolution to describe individuals who supported the American cause during the American Revolution – are underrepresented among the verified DAR and SAR ancestors.
- Many African American patriots served as Continental line soldiers, as opposed to militia soldiers. This changes where their records were stored. Militias were handled locally; the Continental line records are stored federally. This difference in storage means that someone researching a region rather than a specific name is likely to miss a Continental line soldier.
- At least locally in New England, many African American patriots – particularly soldiers – ended up in unmarked graves, due to a combination of systemic racism, poverty, and disability resulting from their long military service. If you’re looking for a gravestone indicating military service, you may not find one. That means the soldier is less likely to be recognized as a patriot.
- These lineage societies have had a history of racism, most notably DAR’s 1939 refusal to allow Marian Anderson to use their performance space. They are working hard to address their pasts and fully recognize the service of all patriots. DAR, for example, just announced an initiative to support further research. But, change is unfortunately slow, and much more work is needed to fully recognize the commitment of these men and women.
So, what can be done to change that?
- Some of the changes have to be made by the lineage societies themselves. They need to make themselves visible to all communities, just not the ones they’ve traditionally reached. Some chapters are making an effort to do that. However, if you see a need, feel to free reach out. You may be educating a chapter or helping them accomplish a goal that they’ve had and not known how to fulfill.
- If you know your ancestry, think about membership. Are you descended from one of these men or women? If so, please think about joining. You’ll be promoting change in a positive way. Even if you’re not interested in membership, please share your ancestor’s story. DAR and SAR both have ways of publicly recognizing the service of patriots separate from membership.
- If you don’t know your ancestry, don’t give up! There are active projects working to trace the descendants of patriots, including patriots of color. If you know your family was from a specific region, be sure to connect with the local DAR or SAR organization. They may be able to help.
We’ve only touched the tip of a very complex topic. If you have questions about the application process or DAR/SAR recognition of African American patriots, please contact us. We’ll be glad to share resources, and we’d love to do more posts!