Advisory: This story includes descriptions of violence, abuse and oppression of Black and Indigenous people, which were the norm in colonial-era Boston.
A 221-foot granite obelisk stands at the site of a pivotal Revolutionary battle in Charlestown, Massachusetts, with monuments to military heroes Dr. Joseph Warren and Col. William Prescott.
The original monument was a wooden structure dedicated to Warren, whose leadership and death in the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775, made him an early martyr for the American Revolution. Warren was a doctor — and a slaveowner — who refused a position of command and instead marched as a regular soldier and died on the battlefield.
The battle was a defeat for Patriot forces who ultimately retreated. But the British suffered devastating losses, and news of the fight ignited the colonies. An 1851 history text describes the Battle of Bunker Hill as “kindling that blaze of glory which finally triumphed in the deliverance of an oppressed people, and in the foundation of a great empire.”
A story less told — though now part of exhibit in the museum across the street — is that the 1,500 or so Patriot soldiers in the battle included about 150 people of color, including at least two dozen who were servants or slaves, or who were formerly enslaved.
And — like much of the history of enslavement linked to sites on the Freedom Trail — this information isn’t new. Nearly 20 years ago, the National Park Service produced a report that documented the service history of soldiers of color who fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill. Those include Peter Salem, an enslaved man credited with killing a top British officer, Maj. John Pitcairn, and Cuff Whittemore, a legally free man who historians say was injured in the battle but bravely "fought to the last."
One formerly enslaved soldier, Salem Poor, who had purchased his freedom six years earlier, performed with such bravery in the battle that 14 officers signed a petition to the General Court honoring him. No other soldier present at the Battle of Bunker Hill was singled out for commendation.
Poor died in 1802. He was buried, anonymously, in Copp's Hill Burying Ground.
This story is part of the project Enslavement History of the Freedom Trail, a collaborative effort between GBH News and Boston University students to detail the mostly hidden history behind some of Boston's most well-known sites.