Return to Home PageThe President's House

In the News index

Source: Philadelphia Tribune
Date: July 4, 2010
Byline: Dwight Ott

Black spy's contributions long forgotten

This is a portrait of Samuel Fraunces, circa 1770-1785, that once hung in Fraunces Tavern in New York.

Samuel Fraunces was the Revolutionary War's answer to James Bond — at least, that's the view of one noted historian.

Charles Blockson, curator emeritus of the Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University, contends that not only was Fraunces one of this country's first spies, but that much of the Revolutionary history of New York revolved around Fraunces and his tavern.

Fraunces operated the tavern, called simply "Fraunces Tavern," for 23 years in New York. Later, he moved to Philadelphia. There he established two businesses — a restaurant on Second Street called the "Tavern Keeper," and a tavern called "Golden Tun Tavern" on South Water Street. He also served as a chief steward in charge of George Washington's household at the President's House for four years until 1794.

Despite Washington's holdings of over 300 slaves, he and Fraunces — a free Black man — remained close friends before the Revolutionary War and after.

In an unabashed note, Washington thanked Fraunces."You have," wrote the first president of the United States, "invariably, through the most trying times, maintained a constant friendship and attention to the cause of our country and its independence and freedom."

In fact, Fraunces, along with his tavern, were favorites of then-General Washington, as well as the Sons of Liberty who frequently drank and rallied there.

According to Blockson: "More clandestine activities [were] planned in Fraunces tavern than anything dreamed up in a [spy] movie. It was there that Sons of Liberty met in 1774 before they dumped East Indian tea into the Hudson River. ...On another occasion, the British, during their maneuvers, fired a shot from a warship from the harbor, crashing into the tavern."

Blockson also noted that it was believed to be a member of Fraunces' family — his daughter Phoebe — who saved Washington's life.

His daughter, according to legend, uncovered a plot to poison Washington and several of his officers by the British. The man allegedly involved, Thomas Hickey, was eventually hanged.

When New York called up troops for the revolution, Fraunces was among the first to enlist. He was captured by the British in 1778, and brought back to New York to serve as a cook for a British general. It was then that his role as a spy reached its zenith.

Fraunces used his position to aid American prisoners and spied on the British for Washington.

Because British officers and soldiers ate and drank at his tavern in New York, Fraunces sometimes overheard information or won confidences about information that became crucial in the Revolutionary War.

Blockson has labored for years to bring this story into the American mainstream and rescue this "sable man," as he calls Fraunces, from oblivion.

Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, led by attorney and activist Michael Coard, have also joined in the crusade to illuminate Fraunces' life.

From the start, Blockson has been attempting to bring attention to Washington and his Philadelphia slave entourage. Besides the nine slaves at the President's Executive House, Washington was said to have over 300 back at his Virginia home at Mount Vernon.

Because Pennsylvania was an anti-slavery state, Washington had to do some fancy legal footwork to circumvent the local laws that would otherwise have required that he free his nine slaves. By claiming he was a resident of Virginia and not Philadelphia and by rotating his slaves in and out every six months he was able to get around the local anti-slavery statutes.

"George Washington may never have told a lie, but he lived one," quipped award-winning journalist Monroe Anderson in a recent column.

Despite such blemishes on his record (or possibly because of it — his ability to dissemble), Washington was said to be something of a "spymaster," adept at the game of intrigue. He is said to have relied heavily on espionage.

Spies like Fraunces and Nathan Hale were used to make up for deficiencies in his ragtag army.

As with many claims to fame by African Americans, the saga of "Black Sam" has been met with criticisms, debunkings and challenges along the road.

Critics often attempt to refute his Blackness by noting that he had ambiguous fair skin. But research conducted by Blockson and a white relative of Fraunces — genealogist Connie Cole — traced Fraunces to the French West Indies where he was listed on a birth certificate as the child of a Frenchman and an African. Fraunces' grandchildren are Black.

The dashing, nattily dressed Black sleuth Fraunces was reimbursed by the Continental Congress for some of his services.

The Continental Congress cited him at the end of the war. But he never received full repayment of monies owed for donations and services in kind to Washington's army for wartime bed and board of the army on occasion.

When the war was won and the Americans re-occupied New York City, Fraunces Tavern hosted Washington and his officers in a victory banquet.

On Dec. 4, 1783, Washington was again at Fraunces Tavern to say farewell to his officers in the Long Room. Saving America from the fate of many republics that turned quickly to military dictatorship, Washington quickly resigned his post and returned to civilian life.

After the war, the tavern housed some offices of the Continental Congress as the country struggled under the Articles of Confederation.

With the establishment of the Constitution and the inauguration of Washington as president in 1789, Fraunces Tavern became the home of several government agencies, including the departments of Foreign Affairs, Treasury and War.

The tavern slowly deteriorated after the capital moved to Philadelphia and then Washington, D.C., though the building remained a functioning tavern through much of the nineteenth century.

The Sons of the Revolution began holding meetings in the building in the late 1800s and purchased and restored it in the early 20th century.

Despite glowing praise from Washington and others, scant recognition of Fraunces remains in Ameican history books.

For two centuries, not even a grave marker designated the spot in Philadelphia where he had been buried.

That was the case until last Saturday, on June 26, at a special ceremony in St. Peter's Episcopal Church cemetery. At the event, Blockson and Cole unveiled an engraving on an obelisk beneath the shady trees of the church.

Last Saturday's long overdue recognition ceremony for the new graveyard marking preceded a procession along a "Trail of Blood and Tears," established recently to honor the sad trail of slavery in Philadelphia.

In the ceremony, close to 100 people squeezed into St. Peter's Church and then cemetery to glimpse the rolling back of the stone of neglect and racism to allow the resurrection of a man who "walked with Princes and Kings" near a graveyard entrance at Third and Pine streets.

Despite a May 26 ceremony, the event was only a symbolic step toward marking Fraunces' grave, since the exact location in the cemetery of the patriot's grave is still unknown.

Ironically, the same fate befell other men of color — nine Native American chiefs who died of yellow fever in an epidemic while attending a doomed peace conference with Washington in Philadelphia before the battle of Fallen Timbers.

At the ceremony, Blockson read Fraunces epitaph, which he dubbed an "Epitaph Deferred."

Blockson called Fraunces forth with these words:

"During your ubiquitous lifetime, you were known in many places as a father, a caterer, cook, restaurateur, patriot, spy, farmer, artist, botanist, esquire and President's House steward," Blockson intoned. "Although you are now lying in the quaint corner of St. Peter's Church's Cemetery in an unmarked grave, your essence is ongoing. We salute you for your extraordinary contributions to our country."


Return to Start Page | In the News index

historic documents, declaration, constitution, more