Reflecting on Veterans Day: Stop dispossessing the stories of Black veterans

Zia Saylor

Ishmael Titus, born into slavery in southern Virginia circa 1745, served in the American Revolutionary War. He fought under Captain James Davis in lieu of his enslaver, Lawrence Ross, who sought to escape the draft. After his one-year term on behalf of Ross, Titus re-enlisted as a free man, serving in the Carolinas on the front lines of the Southern Campaigns for the subsequent two years. Titus even served a stint captured by Tories near Holston River.

Though he earned freedom through his own self-emancipation, Titus fled north after the war, settling in Williamstown. Despite his service, he was denied the economic freedom to which he was entitled. His pension was withheld on the grounds that nobody could verify his service. White authorities would frequently discredit proof offered by Black veterans — often through the reciting of stories as testimony — in court, using the legal system as a tool for oppression and injustice. Indeed, Titus had submitted many testimonies over decades to bolster his case but continued to be denied his rightful pension.

This injustice was twofold: Not only was Titus denied a pension that he objectively earned, but he was also denied humanity by the country he helped

establish. As a Black man, his relationship to freedom was different from that of white soldiers, who grew up relatively self-possessed. Titus fought for his personal freedom from enslavement and for the freedom of his peers; nevertheless, he was denied a pension and, posthumously, a historical presence.

This needs to change.

For starters, the Williamstown Historical Society should acknowledge Titus’ presence as a Revolutionary War hero by hosting an exhibit to honor his presence in the community and remember his story. White soldiers such as Benjamin Simonds, a prominent patriot of the Berk- shires and a well-known slave owner, are honored to this day in Williamstown — look no further than Simonds Road, or the Col. Benjamin Simonds House, which is a historical site.

So why not Titus? His birthplace of North Carolina has a plaque to honor him, yet it is even more critical that Williamstown, as the place he chose to live as a free man, also acknowledge his bravery and persistence. Resources could be invested into finding his grave and other documents that may have pertained to his life, likely hidden in archives by biased archivists and researchers, just as resources were invested in finding the grave of the colonist Albert Hopkins’ son, who died in the Civil War. Or

perhaps, the Town could locate and honor his burial site, similar to how resources were mobilized to recover the body of slaveholder Ephraim Williams Jr. by his family and the College.

But that doesn’t change the bottom line, which is that many of the Black veterans who fought in America’s countless wars under complicated and complex circumstances have been similarly rejected by social remembrance efforts.

The College, as an institution of education and learning, should uplift his story and honor his legacy through a dedicated scholarship or professorship dedicated to those remembering and preserving Black veterans’ histories. A course could exist at Williams teaching about the complex relationship between freedom, the Revolutionary War, and the Black soldiers who fought either voluntarily or involuntarily to establish this country. At the bare minimum, the College could install a plaque in honor and remembrance of this brave Black man and champion of all freedoms. Ishmael Titus rep- resented values that we at the College are taught to cherish. There is no reason not to honor him, tell his story, and say his name moving forward. And this applies to other Black veterans as well. We must honor them and say their names.

Ishmael Titus. You and countless other Black soldiers and liberators deserve better than the racist erasure that has tried to silence your story. If white soldiers are held up as beacons of inspiration, so should Black soldiers be venerated, as their “freedom dreams,” to use historian Robin D.G. Kelley’s term, are often more nuanced and complex.

In this time following Veterans Day, I ask you to consider how you can also make yourself more aware of these inequities and be a part of the solution.

Acknowledgments: I would like to take this space to honor the stolen Mohican land upon which Williams College resides; the White Oaks Community, who was displaced by members of Williams College; the Titus family, for sharing their story and their bravery in pursuing the truth; the Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; the Africana studies department and the Davis Center, who funded aspects of the research; Andrew Art, for his help in uncovering the story; Assistant Professor of Africana Studies Allison Guess, for her guidance in writing; and all the students in “Race, Land, Settler Capitalism” and “Intro to Africana Studies” this semester.

Zia Saylor ’23 is an economics and political science major from Pasadena, Calif.