WSW: Crispus Attucks And A "Blank Slate" In History

Nov 24, 2017

First Marty of Liberty: Crispus Attucks in American Memory
Credit Oxford University Press

Western Michigan University History Professor Mitch Kachun says his book is about Crispus Attucks, one of the men, killed at the Boston Massacre in 1770. But he says First Martyr of Liberty: Crispus Attucks in American Memory also raises questions about who’s included in history, and who is ignored.


Attucks himself was ignored for long periods of American history. Kachun says while the Boston Massacre was remembered in the 1770’s into the 1780’s, those killed were rarely mentioned by name. But Kachun says around the time of the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, more attention was paid to the role of the working class in the American Revolution. Then as the anti-slavery movement became more active, the story of the mixed-race man killed in 1770 was told more often. By the end of the 1840’s and in the 1850’s, Kachun says Attucks was often referred to as a figure in the Revolution.

If Attucks had not been mixed race, Kachun says his name may not have come so much over time. He says that very few people can name any of the others killed at the Boston Massacre. Kachun says Attucks was identified as mixed-race or “mulatto,” but the initial newspaper accounts and the coroner’s report identified him as “Michael Johnson.” Kachun says that had led to theories that Crispus Attucks was hiding his identity because he had escaped slavery in 1750. But Kachun says there is no evidence to support that claim.

Mitch Kachun
Credit Gordon Evans / WMUK

Kachun says historians have been able to use Crispus Attucks as a “blank slate” because so many details of his life are not known. Kachun says transcripts of the trial for the British soldiers accused in the Boston Massacre, and newspaper accounts provide a few glimpses. Kachun says it’s known that Attucks was a sailor, but nothing is known for sure about his education or religion.

Over the years, Attucks would be portrayed as a heroic figure, and sometimes as the leader of an angry mob that left British soldiers with no choice, but to shoot in self-defense. Kachun says historical writing reflects the time when it’s written. For instance in times of war Attucks would be symbolic of blacks’ willingness to fight for their country. Kachun says there is no record that Attucks ever served in the military, but his story was used as an example of how blacks would be effective in war. Kachun says that was also true in both World Wars fought in the 20th century.

Kachun says popular culture has a greater impact on perceptions of American history than professional historians. For that reason, he would have real concerns about a Hollywood movie about the life of Crispus Attucks. Kachun says there were efforts in the 30’s and 40’s to make a movie about Attucks, but they fell through. He says a 1970’s movie got closer to the big screen. The cover of Kachun’s book is taken from a promotional poster for the movie, he says it’s not clear why the movie was never made, or at least released.

In trying to summarize Crispus Attucks, Kachun says there are legitimate question about whether he should be remembered as a hero, and whether he was a freedom fighter. But Kachun says Attucks represents something important in American history. He says Attucks’ presence at the Boston Massacre shows that the working class and people of color were an important part of Colonial America, and Revolutionary times.

Kachun was also interviewed for the New Books Network Podcast .