|Boston, MA||July 6, 2007|
One of the seminal moments in the lead-up to the American Revolution occurred on the evening of March 5, 1770, in front of the Customs House on Boston’s King Street. What began with a small group harassing a British soldier ended with multiple redcoats firing into an increasingly hostile and amassing crowd. Five Bostonians died from the gunshot wounds they received in what became known as the “Boston Massacre.” First among them was Crispus Attucks, who was toward the front of the rioters and took two musket balls to the chest. A man of African and Indigenous heritage, Attucks’s status as one of the first people to die en route to American independence has resulted in his legacy being rich and malleable, used and shaped by individuals and groups of varied causes. The tombstone Attucks and the other victims share in Granary Burying Ground is shown toward the left side of this photograph, while politician Samuel Adams’s marker appears on the right.
In circumstances typical for people of color in 1700s America, there are few contemporaneous records that provide specific details of Attucks’s life. Evaluation of the scant historical documents indicates that Attucks was born circa 1723 in Framingham, Massachusetts, and was enslaved there by Deacon William Brown. A runaway slave advertisement suggests that Attucks fled captivity sometime around 1750. Over the next two decades he is believed to have worked as a sailor. This line of work resulted in his presence in the port city of Boston, where he went to the Customs House on March 5, 1770. That night Attucks’s life ended, but his legend began. Soon too would efforts by some parties to malign or obfuscate his memory.
Attucks’s name is inscribed on the gravestone along with those of the four other men killed in the March 5th shooting: Samuel Gray, Samuel Maverick, James Caldwell, and Patrick Carr. Buried with them is Christopher Snider, an 11-year-old boy. Less than two weeks before the massacre, Snider was shot and killed by a customs officer named Ebenezer Richardson during an anti-loyalist protest. This tombstone honoring the six killed that winter was placed in 1906 by the Boston chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution.
March 2020 marked the 250th anniversary of the Boston Massacre. On the night of March 4th, my friend Chris Hall and I attended a presentation by Professor Serena Zabin that was hosted by the Massachusetts Historical Society. Zabin’s talk focused on the thesis of her new book, The Boston Massacre: A Family History. The following morning, I rode the subway into downtown to watch a graveside wreath-laying ceremony at Granary, put on by the Daughters of the American Revolution. These were the last public events I attended prior to the closures and shutdowns instituted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This pamphlet was distributed to people who attended the wreath-laying ceremony for the 250th anniversary of the “Bloody Massacre.” Commemorations date back to when the violent event was still a recent memory, and able to be used to stoke and maintain public resentment toward Great Britain. In March 1771, a committee of the Massachusetts Legislature reported its opinion that “the Town make choice of a proper Person to deliver and Oration […] to commemorate the barbarous murder of five our our Fellow Citizens on that fatal Day, and to impress upon our minds the ruinous tendency of standing Armies in Free Cities[.]” From 1772 to 1775, these remembrances were held at the spacious Old South Meeting House.
"He is one of the most important figures in African-American history, not for what he did for his own race, but for what it did for all oppressed people everywhere. He is a reminder that the African-American heritage is not only African but American and it is a heritage that begins with the beginning of America."
- Martin Luther King, Jr.
providing his view of the legacy of Crispus Attucks in his book Why We Can't Wait, published in 1964
On the coroner’s report, Attucks was listed under an alias — Michael Johnson. The document is in the collection of Revolutionary Spaces, an organization which formed in 2020 with the merger of the Bostonian Society and the Old South Association. When I took this photograph, the coroner’s report was being displayed in the Reflecting Attucks gallery on the second floor of the Old State House.
Sources Consulted and Further Reading
Fowler, Jermaine, host. “American Martyr: The Story of Crispus Attucks.” The Humanity Archive (podcast). January 3, 2020. Accessed December 12, 2022. https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-humanity-archive/id1436450035?i=1000459346295.
Leonhard, Kelley. “Gallery Talk — Reflecting Attucks.” Revolutionary Spaces. 2023.
Record Commissioners. A Report of the Record Commissioners of the City of Boston, Containing the Boston Town Records, 1770 through 1777. Boston: Rockwell and Churchill, 1887. https://books.google.com/books?id=DhpJAQAAMAAJ&dq.
Reflecting Attucks. Revolutionary Spaces, Boston, MA.
Revolutionary Spaces. “Old South Meeting House – Where the Boston Tea Party Began.” Accessed March 25, 2023. https://www.revolutionaryspaces.org/old-south-meeting-house/.
Wroth, L. Kinvin and Hiller B. Zoebel. Eds. Legal Papers of John Adams vol. 3. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1965.