Fath Ruffins on blacks' reaction to Dunmore's Proclamation
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Q: So Dunmore's Proclamation comes down -- black people don't know whether to believe it or what to believe. Talk about what was inside of people who decided to flee to the British -- and those that decided to stay at home?
A: As in any situation of war, there is a lot of chaos. So why one chooses to leave may be because you believe the proclamation, that you will be free if you get to the British lines, and that they will help you. It may be because the farm that you're living on has been decimated. It's been overrun. There's nothing left. Everyone has gone away. There's a lot of chaos associated with war. People are probably picking whatever immediate pragmatic choice they can make. ...Now, the idea that the British are a safe haven is, in and of itself, problematic. The British are deeply implicated in the slave trade. Slavery at the time of the Revolution, slavery is still legal in the British colonies. The idea that one would be safer being with the British than being with the Americans is not necessarily clear.
What's interesting about the number of people who go to the British forces is that a number of them are women. In other words, this possibility does create a greater possibility for women and their children to escape than existed just under the normal range of things. It is definitely an opportunity for a number of women. And some of them definitely take it.
For the people who remain, first of all, they may not have been able to get away. Maybe they weren't close to the fighting. Maybe they weren't close to British lines. They would have had to go through a lot of American territory before they could get to the British. There are also other issues. Maybe you're old. Maybe you're sick. Maybe you don't want to leave your five children who are scattered among other plantations. So there are many reasons why people would have been unable or perhaps unwilling to escape.
What is extraordinary, what really is extraordinary, is that the largest number of African peoples become free during the Revolution through this escape than become free ever again until the Civil War. The largest number. So this shows the extent to which the war really was for these people an opportunity, an unprecedented opportunity that doesn't come again.
Fath Davis Ruffins
Scholar and Researcher
The Smithsonian Institute
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