On this day in 1848, Agrippa Hull passes away. He’s been called “one of the most remarkable and unnoticed African Americans of the revolutionary era.”
His lineage was certainly noteworthy. It’s been said that his father was an African prince who was captured and sold into slavery. Nevertheless, by the time Agrippa was born, his parents had gained their freedom. Thus, Hull himself was born free.
But was he really the son of a prince?
“We can never know for sure,” his biographer concludes, “but Hull acted like a displaced prince and lived out his life like someone born to be something other than a member of a demeaned caste.”
Either way, Hull’s father passed away when he was still a toddler. The young Agrippa was sent to live with a free black farming family in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
By May 1777, Hull was old enough to enlist in George Washington’s Continental Army. He wasn’t the only black man to enlist, although the motivations of these men varied. Some were serving as substitutes for their masters. Some had asked if they could serve to earn their freedom. As for Hull, his feelings seem to have been mixed. He was patriotic, yes. But did he wonder if Americans fighting for their own liberty would also start to have sympathy for slaves who sought their own liberty?
Either way, Hull enlisted as a private and served with Colonel John Paterson of the Massachusetts line. During his time with Paterson, Hull would have been present for the British surrender at Saratoga, the long winter in Valley Forge, and the Battle at Monmouth Courthouse. The next spring, however, he was reassigned to serve with Tadeusz Kościuszko, a Polish military engineer then helping the American Army.
It was the beginning of a long partnership.
Hull ultimately served for 50 months alongside Kościuszko. Together, the two served in virtually every major battle of the bloody Southern campaign, including the Battles of Cowpens, Eutaw Springs, Ninety-Six, Guilford Courthouse, and the Siege of Charleston.
After the war, Kościuszko invited Hull to return to Poland with him, but Hull wanted to go home to Stockbridge. He’d received the one thing that he would treasure for the rest of his life: discharge papers signed personally by George Washington.
Hull’s life in Stockbridge would be that of a respected citizen—even a landowner. He’d gotten off on the right foot when he found a position in the household of a lawyer by the name of Theodore Sedgwick.
You may remember Sedgwick as the man who helped a slave known as Mum Bett to attain her freedom. Sedgwick would also help Hull’s future wife, Jane Darby, to gain her freedom. Mr. and Mrs. Hull soon settled on a small plot of land that Hull was able to purchase in 1785.
Hull became a local personality whose “presence at weddings seemed almost a necessity,” one early historian writes. “There, as he wedged himself and his ‘good cheer’ into every crowded corner, his impromptu rhymes, and his courteous jokes, were always welcome.” He was noted for his wisdom as well. “It is not the cover of the book,” he was known to say of his race, “but what the book contains is the question. Many a good book has dark covers.”
It’s been said that he was once asked by a white man to comment on a sermon delivered by a reverend of mixed racial heritage. “Sir, he was half black and half white,” Hull reportedly responded. “I like my half, how did you like yours?”
Nevertheless, perhaps the greatest indicator of Hull’s positive influence on those around him can be found in Kościuszko’s will. The Polish engineer had been so positively influenced by Hull that he made provision in his will, appointing Thomas Jefferson its executor and hoping his estate could be used to buy men and women out of slavery.
Unfortunately, Kościuszko’s wishes were never carried out. But that is a story for another day.
Catherine Reef, African Americans in the Military (2004)
Electa Fidelia Jones, Stockbridge, Past and Present, Or, Records of an Old Mission Station (1854)
Gary Nash & Graham Russell Gao Hodges, Friends of Liberty: Thomas Jefferson, Tadeusz Kosciuszko, and Agrippa Hull (2008)
Gary B. Nash and Graham Russell Gao Hodges, Why We Should All Regret Jefferson's Broken Promise to Kościuszko (History News Network)