Deborah and Jennie, In History and Fiction

Dr. Jessie Fields wrote the following note to us this morning about Deborah and Jennie.  I know we will want to talk with Alex about the issues Jessie raises on our call this Sunday.  The call is at 7 pm. The call in number for the conference call is 805 399-1200 and the access code is 767775#.  

Here is Jessie’s note—-

“I watched the video of Alex Myers speaking about Revolutionary at the Harvard Bookstore and noted his mention that it was actually a black slave “Jennie” who provided Deborah with “young Master Leonard’s” clothes. I was intrigued to find out more about Jennie the slave and the relationship between her as a slave and Deborah, an indentured servant. I would have asked him about this if I had been in the audience at the bookstore and I look forward to talking with Alex about this on the call this Sunday.

By the time of the American Revolution the legal and social division between Blacks as slaves and poor whites as indentured servants was under way. When I read Revolutionary I hoped for but did not find any representation of the presence of African Americans during the Revolutionary War period.

Below are a few historical facts I found online, and an article,  The Revolution’s Black Soldiers by Robert A. Selig, Ph.D that the Politics for the People readers may be interested in.

I also wrote Dr. Omar Ali if he could shed some light on the “real” Jennie and the relationship between white and black indentured servants and slaves.  His lovely note back to me is also included below.

“In 1781 the state of New York offered slaveholders a financial incentive to assign their slaves to the military, with the promise of freedom at war’s end for the slaves. In 1783, black men made up one-quarter of the rebel militia in White Plains, who were to march to Yorktown, Virginia for the last engagements.”

“African Americans fought on both sides in the American Revolution. Many slaves chose to fight for the British, as they were promised freedom by General Carleton in exchange for their service. After the British occupied New York City in 1776, slaves escaped to their lines for freedom. The black population in New York grew to 10,000 by 1780, and the city became a center of free blacks in North America. The fugitives included Deborah Squash and her husband Harvey, slaves of George Washington, who escaped from his plantation in Virginia and reached freedom in New York.”



Dear Jessie,

Thanks for your question.  Alfred Young mentions Jennie in his book Masqueradewhich I refer to in my review. Jennie was the daughter of one of Judge Oliver’s two black slaves named Phillip. She later became a servant in the home of Captain Benjamin Leonard and his wife, where Deborah Sampson did weaving. If you want to see the specific sources, go to page 76 of Young’s book and also see his footnotes on that page. Basically, the little we know about Jennie comes through a combination of church records, family oral history, and a mid-nineteenth century editor named Pratt–largely in connection with Sampson, who Jennie had apparently both worked and shared quarters with, as well as abetted in her scheme … They must have been close.

The social, political, and emotional relationship between “Black Jennie” and Sampson is something that would have been so interesting, in my mind, for Myers to explore … Maybe, to my heart’s desire, it’ll appear in one of your poems or maybe a play we write? You could envision, play out, and help us all see and feel who they might have been and meant to each other as working women and revolutionaries …

If this is something you’d like to pursue, I would suggest Young’s book as well as an article by Judith Hiltner which appears in the Spring edition of the journal American Studies, pages 93-113.

Another helpful book to begin looking at the relationship between black and white indentured servants is Paula Giddings’ Where and When I Enter and the work of the historian Eleanor Flexner, who notes instance of  how black and white women shared much of the same labor in a society that made little distinction between the duties of indentured servants, an artisan’s wife, and the “gently born” mistress. Although situations varied, black and white women in colonial America and the (very) Early Republic were often in very close proximity, working and living their lives together … It’s not just the narrative of the distant white mistress and enslaved black woman on the plantation, as you know. In fact, during the early stages of colonial American society black servants actually had a higher legal status than white indentured servants, as the former were protected under international law. The racial codification of slavery would transform this.


Founder of the Politics for the People free educational series and book club for independent voters. Chair of the New York County Independence Party.

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