ABOVE PHOTO: Raleigh firefighter Chaz Moore poses for a photo at his fire station in Raleigh, N.C. Moore is the first black man to be inducted into the North Carolina chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution. His relative, Tobey Gilmore, was a slave who fought in the Revolutionary War.
(AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
A chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution in North Carolina is inducting its first black member, a firefighter who only recently learned his ancestor was freed from slavery after fighting for American independence.
Chaz Moore, 30, is a descendant of Toby Gilmore, the son of a chieftain in coastal West Africa who was kidnapped at 16 and sold into slavery in Massachusetts. He gained his freedom by joining the fight for what would become the United States.
“Growing up, I wasn’t even certain that African Americans even fought in the Revolutionary War,” Moore said. “It’s not something that’s talked about. Then to say, well, yeah, they did, and you’re a direct descendant of one was unbelievable, humbling. I had to redefine patriotism for myself.”
Moore, who was born in Worcester, Mass., has been a Raleigh firefighter for about five years. On Saturday, he’ll become the first black inducted into the North Carolina chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution in a ceremony at the state Museum of History.
His journey to his roots came through a cousin whose research into the family tree took her to the Old Colony Historical Society in Taunton, Mass. The family history took another turn in 2010 with the discovery that a relative named Maud May Sullivan, born in 1881, had been raised not by her mother, but by a stepmother.
Her biological mother, Almira Sullivan, had died in 1883, and she was a descendant of Toby Gilmore, slave and patriot.
So standing there that day in the museum was another Gilmore descendant. And no one was more surprised to learn this than Andrew Boisvert, museum archivist and library manager, who had studied Gilmore for nine years.
Because descendants had moved and last names had changed through marriage, Gilmore’s line was thought to have ended in 1921 when a descendant named Caroline J. Gilmore, who had married one of Gilmore’s grandsons, died. Gilmore’s story is well known in the area and still taught to children, Boisvert said.
“This is a guy who was born free, raised as a slave and then became a free man afterwards,” Boisvert said.
Gilmore, born Shibodee Turry Wurry, was about 16 when slave traders kidnapped him in 1757. The slave ship changed course from Virginia to Rhode Island because of a storm, and the traders sold some slaves to pay for repairs.
Capt. John Gilmore of Raynham, Mass., bought Wurry and renamed him Toby Gilmore.
Some historians estimate that about 5,000 blacks fought against the British, although the number could be much higher. Records show Gilmore joined the war three times even though he gained his freedom with his first eight-day enlistment, Boisvert said. He became a successful farmer, built two homes (one of which still stands), fathered eight children and lived to the age of 70.
Moore wonders what would make a slave fight for the country that enslaved him.
“To stand side-by-side with your taskmaster, what was he thinking?” Moore asked. “What was he hoping to gain out of this?”
In 2006, when Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. learned he was the descendant of a Revolutionary War veteran, the executive director of Sons of the American Revolution estimated about 30 of the group’s 27,000 members were black. The society doesn’t ask for race on its application so no one is really certain how many members are black, said Don Shaw, SAR’s current executive director.
Gates and SAR began a project to track black patriots, and the project continues with a researcher in Virginia, said Joe Dooley of Falls Church, Va., SAR’s treasurer general who helped organize a conference last year on the subject. He says he knows 20 black members and estimates SAR now has as many as 50.
However, historians estimate about 10 percent of militias and George Washington’s army were black.
“There’s a terrible discrepancy here,” Dooley said, noting that some African Americans may have white ancestors who fought in the war.
The reasons may vary. Genealogical records may be harder to come by for blacks of the era because many were slaves. North Carolina may just now be getting its first member because of how rare it is to find descendants of Revolutionary soldiers that far south, he said.
Mike Taylor, secretary of the Raleigh SAR chapter, said he was especially pleased to be inducting Moore because he has traced ancestors who helped slaves escape through the Underground Railroad.
“It has deep personal meaning for me,” he said. “… It’s an important step forward, albeit a small step. Big steps hopefully will follow.”