Thousands of black men fought for American independence during the Revolutionary War, yet their contributions rarely appear in modern history books.
Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and the Sons of the American Revolution are hoping to change that with an ambitious project to identify those soldiers and their descendants.
"My first goal with this project is to enhance the awareness of the American public of the role of African-Americans in the struggle for freedom in this country,'' said Gates, director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard.
"Plus, my concern is that there are many people walking around, like me, who had no idea that I had an ancestor who fought in the Revolution,'' he said.
Gates was inspired to begin the project after he learned he had a relative who fought in the Revolution during filming of the PBS documentary series "African American Lives,'' which used DNA testing and genealogical research to investigate the ancestry of notable black Americans.
The project, funded by Harvard and the Sons of the American Revolution, will identify blacks believed to have fought in the war and encourage their descendants to come forward.
Joseph W. Dooley, the chairman of the Sons of the American Revolution's membership committee, said he wants to identify as many people as possible who contributed to the war. He envisions future projects tracking the contributions of women and Native Americans.
The descendants will be eligible to apply for membership in the Sons of the American Revolution or the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Of nearly 27,000 members of Sons of the American Revolution, fewer than 30 are black, said Jim Randall, executive director and chief executive of the Louisville, Ky.-based organization. Of 165,000 Daughters of the American Revolution members, only about 30 are black, Dooley said.
An estimated 5,000 blacks fought for independence during the Revolutionary War.
"It's not recognized by most Americans that perhaps as much as 10 percent of George Washington's troops were black,'' Dooley said. "It's reasonable to say that the contribution of blacks in the American Revolution was indispensable.''
Genealogist Jane Ailes, who also traced Gates' ancestry, plans to look over 80,000 pension applications for Revolutionary War soldiers and compare the names against federal census records, which often contained information on race.
Ailes said she has already identified more than 20 people who may have served in the Revolutionary War, including an escaped slave.
Gates was inducted into the Sons of the American Revolution earlier this month, and several other members of his family may join as well. He said it was something he had dreamed of since reading Du Bois's "Dusk of Dawn.''
Du Bois, a Massachusetts-born black activist of the early 20th century, was admitted to the organization's state chapter but rejected by the national organization because he could not provide sufficient documentation.
"I envied him for having the knowledge that he could make that claim, but I never thought I'd be standing up there,'' Gates said. "It was a great honor and very exciting to pay homage to my ancestor. He risked his life to fight for the freedom of this country.''