Jersey City’s Muriel “Didi” Roberts belongs to the DAR—Daughters of the American Revolution.
She was admitted for membership because her fifth great grandfather, eight generations removed, Plato Turner, served with distinction in the 2nd and 3rd Massachusetts Regiments fighting the British during the War for Independence.
Roberts was researching her family tree, primarily through Ancestry.com, when she discovered her distant relative’s name in a reference citation and learned of his military exploits. “My heart just jumped out of my body,” Roberts recalled.
Many other African-Americans contributed to the American patriot cause, as explained by historical speaker/reenactor Leon Vaughan in a lecture he gave Presidents’ Day at the Museum of Jersey City History, in residence at the Apple Tree House on Van Wagenen Avenue.
Vaughan, an East Orange resident, spoke after the annual wreath laying ceremony conducted by the George Washington Commemorative Society and the Museum with society president Edward C.J. Meehan presiding.
Among those attending the ceremony were members of the Knights of Columbus, 4thDegree; representatives of the Masonic Order and an honor guard of the Hudson County Sheriff’s Office.
Vaughan was outfitted in colonial period uniform and displayed a French-made, 12-pound flintlock rifle which, he said, was the standard weapon issued to Continental Army soldiers who would load powder into the muzzle and jam it down the barrel with a ramrod before firing.
“A good soldier could get off three shots in a minute,” he said.
Modern expressions like “don’t go off half-cocked” and “flash in the pan” derived from the misuse of the weapon, Vaughan noted.
Among the Black veterans highlighted by Vaughn were New Englanders Peter Salem and Plato Turner and New Jerseyan Oliver Cromwell.
Salem, who was from Framingham, Mass., was emancipated so he could serve with the Minutemen militia and fought with other Blacks in the Battles of Lexington and Concord. At Bunker Hill, Salem was credited with mortally wounding British Major John Pitcairn—a scene captured in John Trumbull’s painting displayed in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Salem continued to serve, through several re-enlistments, during a 5-year period, fighting in the New York Campaign in Harlem Heights and Trenton, and later, at Saratoga, Monmouth and Stony Point, ending with his discharge in 1780.
As a civilian back in his hometown, Salem found it hard to make ends meet. He died in a poorhouse and was buried in a pauper’s grave. One century later, Framingham dedicated a monument to honor his military service.
Plato Turner, who gained his freedom from slavery after enlisting with the Continentals, also hailed from Massachusetts and served in New York during the Canadian Campaign from 1776 to 1779, including the critical Battle of Saratoga. He ended his service in 1783, mustering out at West Point.
Turner returned to his native state where he acquired a house known as “Parting Ways” in Plymouth and the area attracted other Black veterans who built homes there. The town deeded over the land—about 90 acres—to the ex-soldiers as a tribute to their military service to the country. The settlement acquired the name “New Guinea,” believed by historians to be among the earliest independent communities of freedmen in New England.
“Blacks formed a large part of the New England fishing industry,” Vaughan said, and they played an important role in helping rescue Gen. George Washington’s army from pursuing British forces.
What turned the tide in Washington’s favor, according to Vaughn, was the intervention of patriot John Glover, a Massachusetts ship owner and merchant, who organized a regiment of 500 militia members and sailors of Marblehead, Mass., including Latinos, Native Americans, Jews and Blacks—constituting one of the first integrated military units—and deployed boats normally used to transport iron ore to ferry the Continentals’ regiment across the East River, from Brooklyn to Manhattan, to safety, thereby, historians say, staving off the defeat of the rebellion in 1776.
Boatsmen stuffed the oarlocks with rags to silence the noise of rowing that the enemy would likely have heard, Vaughn said.
After covering the Continental forces with a rear-guard action, Washington’s army retreated to White Plains and then, to New Jersey. On Christmas night, 1776, Glover and his “Marbleheaders” transported the general and his army across the Delaware River to surprise and defeat Hessian troops aligned with the British.
Oliver Cromwell, a free Black farmer from Mansfield Township in Burlington County, served with the Continentals with the 2nd New Jersey Regiment between 1777 and 1783, at the battles of Trenton, Princeton, Short Hills, Brandywine, Monmouth and the final siege at Yorktown.
Washington signed Cromwell’s discharge papers and awarded him the Badge of Merit. With the aid of a $96-a-year pension secured by locals who came to his aid, he bought a 100-acre farm outside Burlington, fathered 15 children and lived to the age of 100. His descendants still live in the city. Last May, the DAR dedicated a plaque on his home in honor of his service.
DAR member Roberts said she’d traced her family back to Turner’s granddaughter, Rachel Telford, who’d married Deacon George Washington in Massachusetts. “Her mother was Rachel Turner,” Roberts said, “but it had somehow been mistakenly switched to Tanner.”
For a while, the trail went cold but, after learning more about Rachel’s neighbors and related information, ultimately, the name of Plato Turner turned up, as did “a lot of information” about his military record, Roberts recalled.
According to Revolutionary and Civil War historian Patrick Browne, after ending his military service, Turner—along with several other Black veterans—made new homes in what was known as the “Parting Ways” settlement on 93 acres of land granted them by the Town of Plymouth in recognition of their service. That neighborhood—populated exclusively by African-Americans, later was known as “New Ghinea, one of the earliest independent communities of freedmen in New England.”
For further information on the role played by African-Americans in the War for Independence, Vaughn recommended the following books: “Stories of Slavery in New Jersey” by Rick Geffken; “The Indispensables” by Patrick O’Donnell; “Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence” by Alan Gilbert; and “They Were Good Soldiers: African-Americans Serving in the Continental Army, 1775-1783” by John U. Rees.