Military Wiki
Rev. James Robinson
Birth name James Robinson
Nickname Old Father Robinson
Born (1753-03-21)March 21, 1753
Died March 27, 1868(1868-03-27) (aged 115)
Place of birth Eastern Shore of Maryland
Place of death Detroit, Michigan
Buried at Elmwood Cemetery (Detroit, Michigan) (42°20′50″N 83°01′02″W / 42.3472486°N 83.0171011°W / 42.3472486; -83.0171011Coordinates: 42°20′50″N 83°01′02″W / 42.3472486°N 83.0171011°W / 42.3472486; -83.0171011)
Allegiance  United States
Service/branch Continental Army (Revolution)
 United States Army (War of 1812)
Rank Private
Battles/wars American Revolutionary War
 • Battle of Brandywine
 • Siege of Yorktown
War of 1812
 • Battle of New Orleans
Awards Gold Medal of Valor
( Kingdom of France)
Spouse(s) Curtilda

Rev. James Robinson (1753–1868) was born on the Eastern Shore of Maryland into bondage on March 21, 1753.[1] His master was Francis De Shields. Robinson served under the General Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette and would become a significant African American soldier in the Revolutionary War.[2]

Revolutionary War service

Robinson's master Francis De Shields had him enlist at age 24 and fight in a Virginia Light Infantry Regiment with the promise that he could earn his freedom.[3][4][5] His regiment was one of several African American regiments under the command of the General Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette.[6][7] He fought in the Battle of Brandywine which was a British victory. Also White Haven, Roanoke River, Ragged Point, on Dorset County River, Vienna Ferry, and Cambridge.[8] He led the charge up a British rampart of a redoubt at the Siege of Yorktown and he attacked and defeated three British soldiers at once.[9][10] General Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, was so impressed with his actions that he personally awarded Robinson a Gold Medal of Valor.[11][12][13][14][15][16][17][18][19] This would make him the highest decorated African American veteran of the Revolutionary War. He was one of between 5,000 and 10,000 African Americans who served in the Revolutionary War on the American side.

War of 1812 service

After the Revolutionary War, De Shields reneged on his promise to free Robinson and sold him in New Orleans back into slavery in Louisiana.[20][21] His new master Calvin Smith, who according to Robinson, was cruel and unforgiving and had him serve in the War of 1812.[22][23] In 1813 General Andrew Jackson arrived to gather forces to repel the British during what would become the Battle of New Orleans. During an engagement one of Robinson's fingers were shot off in battle. Also at some point he was struck by a saber in the head, leaving a scar he would carry his whole life. After the American victory, soldiers gathered around General Andrew Jackson and he announced that the slaves who had fought would not be freed after all. Robinson thought about taking his gun and shooting General Andrew Jackson right then and there but decided against it.[24]

Life after being freed

Eventually Robinson obtained his freedom in the 1830s[25] and became an ordained minister.[26] In the 1840 and 1850 U.S. Census he was living in Butler County, Ohio with his wife Curtilda. They had two sons, Alexander and Wesley Sr. Wesley would go on to serve in the American Civil War in the 102nd United States Colored Infantry Regiment. In the 1860 U.S. Census Robinson and his family were living in Detroit.[27] Robinson wrote a book James Roberts (slave narrative) about his life under a variation of his name. At the time of Robinson's death he lived at 137 E. Fort St. Robinson's family lived at 136 W. Lafayette Blvd in Detroit, which is now a private park called Lafayette Greens.[28] In 1825 Robinson once again met Lafayette during his return tour of the United States. Robinson died in Detroit on March 27, 1868, at the age of 115. During his funeral large crowds gathered to watch.[29] He was the last living African American Veteran of the Revolutionary War at the time and the oldest person buried in Elmwood Cemetery (Detroit, Michigan).[30][31] His last known living descendant was Gertrude Robinson, his granddaughter who died in Ohio in 1983.[32]

Military honors at last

Rev. James Robinson grave after the marking and dedication ceremony.

On June 22, 2019, a joint grave marking ceremony was held at Elmwood Cemetery (Detroit, Michigan) by the Michigan societies of the Sons of the American Revolution and General Society of the War of 1812.[33][34] Military honors with assistance from the American Legion were conducted 151 years after his death.[35][36][37] Many dignitaries spoke including U.S. Representative Rashida Tlaib and Maj. Gen. Leonard Isabelle of the Michigan Air National Guard and Sen. Gary Peters provided a letter which was read.[38] Tlaib had read Robinson's achievements into the U.S. Congressional Record and presented a certificate which was sent to the National Mall Liberty Fund D.C.[39][40] The National Mall Liberty Fund D.C. is working to build the National Liberty Memorial, which will memorialize the African American contribution to Independence.[41]


  1. Green, Robert Ewell (1974). Black defenders of America, 1775-1973. Johnson Publishing Company. p. 18. ISBN 9780874850536. 
  2. Historical Afro-American biographies. Publishers Agency, Incorporated : under the auspices of The Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History. 1976. p. 29. 
  3. Grundset, Eric G. (2008). Forgotten patriots : African American and American Indian patriots in the Revolutionary War : a guide to service, sources and studies. National Society Daughters of the American Revolution. p. 463. ISBN 978-1892237101. 
  4. Garrison, Webb B. (1974). Sidelights on the American Revolution. Abingdon Press. p. 162. ISBN 9780687384396. 
  5. Quarles, Benjamin (1996). The Negro in the American Revolution.. Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Va., by University of North Carolina Press. p. 68. ISBN 0807846031. 
  6. Pitts, Jonathan M.. "Twice denied the freedom he'd fought for, black Revolutionary War hero from Maryland to be honored at last". 
  7. Boyd, Herb (2017). Black Detroit : a people's history of self-determination (First ed.). HarperCollins Publishers. ISBN 9780062346643. 
  8. "Reverend James Robinson | Biographies". Historic Elmwood Cemetery & Foundation. 
  9. Curry, Gerald D. (2013). Striving For Perfection : Developing Professional Black Officers.. Iuniverse. p. 5. ISBN 9781475984804. 
  10. Boys' Life Magazine (July 1975 ed.). Boy Scouts of America, Inc.. p. 24. 
  11. Crisis, Volume 99. Crisis Publishing Company. 1992. p. 30. 
  12. Jenkins, Everett (1996). Pan-African Chronology. McFarland & Company. p. 130. 
  13. Information Please Almanac. Simon and Schuster. 1993. p. 633. 
  14. Black Americans in Defense of Our Nation. Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Civilian Personnel Policy/Equal Opportunity, Department of Defense. 1991. p. 28. 
  15. Afro-Americans '76 : Black Americans in the founding of our nation. Afro-Am Pub. Co. 1975. p. 56. ISBN 9780910030205. 
  16. Wesley, Charles (1968). In Freedom's Footsteps, from the African Background to the Civil War. Publishers Company. p. 98. 
  17. The Negro almanac : a reference work on the African American (5th ed.). Gale Research Inc. 1989. p. 827. ISBN 9780810377066. 
  18. Zaniewski, Ann. "151 years after death, enslaved Revolutionary War vet honored in Detroit" (in en). 
  19. McPherson, Mark (2001). Looking for Lisette. Mage Press in conjunction with Thomson-Shore, Incorporated. p. 162. 
  20. Clayton, Sheryl H. (1987). Black Members of Congress & Their Speeches & Tributes. Essai Seay Publications. p. 262. 
  21. African Concord (Issues 106-121 ed.). Concord Press of Nigeria. 1986. p. 26. 
  22. "The Venerable Man". H. Bucher Swoope. 22 Jan 1868. p. 1. 
  23. Cox, Clinton (1999). Come all you brave soldiers : Blacks in the Revolutionary War (First ed.). Scholastic Press. p. 170. ISBN 0590475762. 
  24. "James Roberts, 1753-. The Narrative of James Roberts, a Soldier Under Gen. Washington in the Revolutionary War, and Under Gen. Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans, in the War of 1812: "a Battle Which Cost Me a Limb, Some Blood, and Almost My Life"". 
  25. "Oldest Man in America". Lewisburg Chronicle. 14 Feb 1868. p. 1. 
  26. Moore, Tom. "African American Soldiers Fought For Freedom In The Revolution" (in en). 
  27. DeRamus, Betty (2009). Freedom by any means : true stories of cunning and courage on the Underground Railroad (First Atria Paperbackition ed.). p. 263. ISBN 9781439156483. 
  28. U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc.. 2011. 
  29. "An Italo-American Newspaper's Obituary of a Negro Revolutionary War Veteran". Dec 1954. p. 58. 
  30. Franck, Michael (1996). Elmwood endures : history of a Detroit cemetery. Wayne State University Press. p. 50. ISBN 9780814325919. 
  31. Wright, Roberta (1996). Lay down body : living history in African American cemeteries. Visible Ink Press. p. 173. ISBN 9780787606510. 
  32. Pitts, Jonathan M.. "Twice denied the freedom he'd fought for, a black Revolutionary War hero from Maryland is honored at last" (in en). 
  33. Podcasts (25 June 2019). "A black Revolutionary War hero is belatedly honored". Apple Podcasts (Podcast). The Washington Post. 
  34. "James Robinson (U.S. National Park Service)" (in en). 
  35. "Complete Coverage of the 129th Annual Congress". 2019. p. 31. 
  36. Lewin, Katherine (26 June 2019). "Black War Hero James Robinson Finally Honored with Military Funeral". 
  37. "Michigan Society News". 
  38. "Dedication Service Honoring Reverend Private James Robinson". The General Society of the War of 1812. May 2020. p. 7. 
  39. "Congressional Record". 
  40. "African-American Revolutionary War hero's legacy of diversity honored at Detroit gravestone dedication" (in en). 
  41. "About Us – National Liberty Memorial". 

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