The layers of history run deep through Lower Manhattan. This Black History Month we will be looking at those places in our neighborhood that illuminate the stories of the African diaspora in New York. Kamau Ware, founder of the Black Gotham Experience, is authoring a series to help show us exactly what ground we stand upon.
If you have been in Lower Manhattan, you have probably walked by Fraunces Tavern. You won’t find a picture of the tavern keeper outside the restaurant, nor does any known portrait of the man exist. A bust of George Washington hangs on a sign in front of the famed eatery in honor of historical events that took place involving the general during the revolutionary era. The fascinating mystery that is Samuel Fraunces himself, however, escapes a first glance. Unknown to many is that Fraunces might well have been of mixed ancestry and is considered Black by many historians.
Fraunces would not have been the first person with African ancestry passing as white in colonial or postcolonial America. In English territories, racial identity was more black and white, but in French and Spanish colonies, there were ethnic groups, gradients that came with their own social queues. Samuel Fraunces, affectionately known as “Black Sam” after the American Revolution, is such an enigma. Stories of his origins are unclear, but some point to the West Indies.
What is clear is that Fraunces was a revolutionary before he met Washington of Virginia, and Sam’s Queen’s Head Tavern was a place where revolutionaries could meet and plot. Washington chose Fraunces’ place to bid farewell to his troops at the conclusion of the American Revolution.
The gesture was not lost on Fraunces. When Washington became our first president, he asked Fraunces to accompany him to Philadelphia to run the President’s House. Fraunces’ full legacy, in no small part, may well be a history that our city and country have yet to fully recognize.