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Tue, 12.10.1748

An original Patriot, James Lafayette

James Lafayette

*James Lafayette’s birth in 1748 is celebrated on this date. He was a Black slave and American patriot.

Born on William Armistead's New Kent County farm, in 1781 he received permission to leave his master's service and volunteer with the American forces under the Marquis de Lafayette, (a young French general and American ally). During this time the British had devastated Richmond, looting and burning much of the city and chasing the Virginia legislature from the Capitol; thus the Generals offer to assist the small army came at a critical time.

Gen. Lafayette began sending spies behind British lines.  Impressed with the his aptitude and memory, he sent him to enemy camps to get information on troop numbers, gun locations and morale of the army.  He first worked as a volunteer in the camp of Benedict Arnold, who led one of two British armies in Richmond.  Lord Charles Cornwallis led the other.  Historians believe his job as a trusted servant gave him the opportunity to stand by as the general and officers discussed plans while they ate and drank. Risking his life, James would later whisper what he overheard to other trusted Blacks in the camp who passed the information on to the General.  He later returned to the Generals camp told him that Cornwallis had sent him as spy.

His work as a master spy helped keep enemy troop advances in check and was instrumental in setting the stage for George Washington's victory at Yorktown, the final battle in the war. After the British surrender, Cornwallis visited General Lafayette's headquarters where he saw James who he thought was his spy, wearing an American uniform. In 1784, Gen. Lafayette wrote a certificate to the Virginia legislature praising and a request companion James to be a free man, which was granted in 1787. James took Lafayette as his surname.

Twenty-three years passed before the state awarded James Lafayette the annual pension paid to whites that had taken part in the war. Decades later the state awarded James Lafayette an annual pension for his service to the American cause during the Revolutionary War.  In 1824 the aging Marquis toured America for the last time. While in Richmond he met with his old comrade James, then 76 years old. During this visit James Lafayette, dressed in a military coat, sat for his portrait. It hangs in Richmond's Valentine Museum. James Lafayette died in 1830.

Black First:
2,000 years of extraordinary achievement
by Jessie Carney Smith
Copyright 1994 Visible Ink Press, Detroit, MI
ISBN 0-8103-9490-1


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