Crispus Attucks: A fluid legacy, in motion once again

Engraving of the Boston Massacre. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

By Jesse Remedios
Boston University News Service

On March 5, 1770, a law enforcement officer killed an unarmed black man. News of his death sparked outrage and started a movement. 

But if you follow the Freedom Trail through downtown Boston, past the Old State House, to a circle of grey stones marking the place where he died, the man’s name is noticeably absent. Across the street, a small red sign, unhinged from its posts and neighbored by trash cans, provides a brief explanation of what happened there that day: “Nine British soldiers were confronted by an angry mob.” There is no mention of Crispus Attucks, the first casualty in the Boston Massacre.

This year, Attucks’ story strikes a new chord. Americans are reckoning not only with race but with history — with who is remembered and how. Attucks has been remembered in different ways by different people for different reasons in the 250 years since his death, despite being unacknowledged at his death site. His legacy is fluid, and it may be morphing once again.

Last June, as millions marched through city streets, millions more processed the historic moment online. That’s when, alongside #GeorgeFloyd and #BlackLivesMatter, “Crispus Attucks” trended on Twitter.

This was just the latest time Attucks’ name was wielded for a cause. Antebellum Black abolitionists hailed Attucks as “the first martyr of liberty” in the 19th century. Civil rights activists employed a similar strategy throughout Jim Crow. And in 2015, some compared Attucks to yet another victim of police violence — a teenager from Ferguson, Miss., named Michael Brown.

Mitch Kachun, historian and author of “First Martyr of Liberty: Crispus Attucks in American Memory,” thinks Attucks — the symbol — continues to resonate because we don’t actually know much about Attucks, the man.

We know he was probably born near Natick, Mass., and was likely part Native American. He likely escaped slavery and was, by most accounts, a pretty big guy. All else is open to interpretation. Was he a victim or a patriot, martyr or mob leader, an agitator or a hero?

“People can kind of use him as a blank slate,” Kachun said in a phone interview. “They can impose meanings that fit their purposes.”

Johnathan S. Perkins, a public academic and podcast host, is one of the activists who thought of Attucks last summer. Perkins was quarantining in Los Angeles at the time, watching the smoke rise past his window, unsure if it was from wildfires or a burning police car, and growing more and more angry at how shocked the country was by Floyd’s death. People shouldn’t be surprised, he thought, because “this goes back to literally the first thing we did as a country.” 

And so, Perkins called on Crispus Attucks to remind them:

“The Boston Massacre, which led to the Revolutionary War, was sparked when Crispus Attucks, an unarmed Black man, was gunned down by government agents,” Perkins tweeted on July 24. “Police killing unarmed Black men is America’s brand. And we’ve been screaming #BlackLivesMatter from jump street.”

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