Olivia Carpenter Glenn, who has put together one of several African American-themed exhibits for this year’s Patriots Week, says many people in this state don’t realize how important New Jersey was in the Revolutionary War, or, especially, how important the contributions of African Americans were to this state’s revolutionary efforts.
“With New Jersey being the crossroads of the American Revolution, so much attention is going to be focused in the next several years or decades on unearthing New Jersey’s revolutionary significance, and telling the stories of African Americans and their service is vitally important to understanding that full picture,” says Glenn, special assistant to state Department of Environmental Protection Deputy Secretary John S. Watson Jr., who compiled and curates the exhibit.
Glenn’s exhibit, titled “Oh, Freedom! Blacks on the Battlefront and in the Aftermath of the American Revolutionary War in New Jersey: A Traveling Exhibit,” will be featured at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton on Sunday, December 28, at 2:30 p.m., as part of Patriots Week. The exhibit has been showing at the museum since November 21 and will be on view through December 31, after which it will travel to state historic sites and maybe beyond, Glenn says.
“It’s focusing on blacks’ service on the battlefront and behind the lines, and then what happened to the soldiers who fought in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War,” says Glenn. “We’ve had lots of visibility and positive feedback. It’s reinforcing some of the strengths of African American people; their resilience, their resistance to slavery, their self-determination, and that they should be recognized in the Hall of Patriots just as much as George Washington has a right to be there. They fought for their personal freedom just as this nation was fighting for political independence.”
The exhibit contains more than 100 documents and artifacts, and spans the period between 1774 and 1800. “We’re talking about information from the dawn of the American Revolution,” she says. “I wanted to get some information and some context about the irony of slavery in a nation that was seeking political independence. We have some quotes from Thomas Paine and Phillis Wheatley and Abigail Adams that date back to 1774. We have one of the depictions of the Boston Massacre where Crispus Attucks (the black man who was the first American to die in the struggle for independence) was killed in 1770.”
The exhibit includes primary source documents such as soldiers’ discharge papers, pension and emancipation records, and others. “We have some visual documents as well, such as the famous painting of Washington crossing the Delaware from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and we have other graphics from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.”
Also in the exhibit are photos of local African American Revolutionary War (and Civil War) reenactors, who wear authentic clothing and depict real African American regiments from those periods.
Glenn thinks the exhibition, and the others about African American history, are important for several reasons. “What is generally known about black history is that it usually begins at 1619 with us coming here as slaves, skips the entire 17th century and jumps to the Civil War, with us looking to be freed. This exhibit is important because it fills that gap,” she says.
Glenn’s path has been a New Jersey one. She was born in Philadelphia, but raised in Camden and Pennsauken. Her father, William Carpenter, is a retired correction officer, and her mother, Doris Carpenter, founded the Due Season Charter School. “We have a strong commitment to public service,” Glenn says of her family. Glenn graduated from Dartmouth in 2000, and earned a master’s degree in environmental management from Yale in 2003. She now lives with her husband and son in Pennsauken.
Glenn is not an historian by trade, but she enjoyed the historical research she did to put together the exhibit. “In spite of not being a historian, I do consider myself a scholar,” she says. “My background is in environmental studies and environmental management. As a part of my training, my faculty adviser taught us how to scrutinize information that is passed along to us, as well as to always seek the truth, bottom line. The skills that were built during my graduate training prepared me for the rigor that it took to get to the primary source documents.” Glenn spent months in the state archives and library, as well as searching other sources, to put together the exhibit.
African Americans comprised approximately 13 percent of the population of the 13 original colonies, a proportion similar to today’s demographic in America. In New Jersey, the black population in the 18th century was about seven to eight percent, and 81 percent were slaves. Most African Americans lived in East Jersey.
“Although most people don’t think of slavery being present in the North, and people don’t think it was ever in New Jersey, it was definitely here,” says Glenn. “We had the second largest slave population among the Northern colonies. Only New York had more slaves than New Jersey.
“Blacks were approximately 20 percent of those who were fighting for America’s cause. That’s pretty significant,” says Glenn. “Another thing I think this exhibit does is highlight the fact that blacks were present on both sides of this war. First of all, it is not general knowledge that blacks fought in the Revolutionary War. The estimates are upwards of 5,000 who fought on the American side, and 10,000 who fought on the British side.”
Both sides offered African American soldiers their freedom in exchange for military service. Ironically, it was the British who were, at first, much more willing to accept black fighting men in their ranks. Why so many on the British side? “The British made the first offer of freedom,” Glenn says, “so many more blacks flocked to the British lines. George Washington, when he came on board, said he would not allow black enlistments. We have his general order on that issue incorporated into the exhibit. But a month later, Washington put out a general order saying free blacks could enlist. Then, several years down the road, in 1778, he eventually formed one very well-known regiment, the First Rhode Island Regiment, composed mostly of slaves who fought for their freedom.”
Patriots’ Week, Trenton. Friday through Wednesday, December 26 to 31. Check website for full schedule, cost, and reservations. 877-PAT-WEEK or www.patriotsweek.com.