What does the statue of the Polish general on a horse on Michigan Avenue have to do with Black History Month?
Most people think of Thaddeus Kosciuszko as a Polish revolutionary who made a major contribution to the American victory during the War of Independence. He was that indeed. But his legacy to his beloved adopted country is much wider and deeper. Kosciuszko was a pioneer of the struggle against slavery, servitude, and inequality in America and Europe. His dear friend, Thomas Jefferson, said of him: “He is the purest son of liberty I have ever known, and not just for the wealthy and high-born.”
It is fitting to remember his legacy in 2017, which marks the 200th anniversary of his death, and to commemorate it during February—his birth month (February 4), as well as Black History Month. Himself a victim of social discrimination and class inequality, and an outspoken opponent of serfdom in his native land, Kosciuszko was appalled by the vicious slavery he found in the American colonies for whose freedom he fought and bled for seven long years. His convictions were exemplified by his life and actions. His aide for much of the war was a free black man, Agrippa Hull, who became one of his closest friends. After the war, he invited Hull to return with him to Poland. Hull decided to remain in the United States. When Kosciuszko returned more than a dozen years later to America, crippled by wounds and years in Catherine the Great’s prisons, he made an arduous journey of hundreds of miles to visit his friend in Massachusetts.
The friendship of the two men was forged over five years of shared hardship and danger and a common opposition to slavery and racism. Kosciuszko, himself a victim of painful social discrimination, an opponent of serfdom and an avid student of the ideas of the Enlightenment, and Agrippa Hull, a free Black who daily fought assaults on his dignity and rightful claims to equality in his native New England together learned the full evil and degradation of chattel slavery on Southern plantations in their service in General Nathaniel Greene’s Army of the South. The experience helped shape their subsequent lives. Kosciuszko’s commitment to freedom and opposition to the evils of slavery are best illustrated in an incident while he served in Greene’s army. After the death in battle of one of his comrades, he prevented his colleagues from dividing up the personal effects of the deceased officer, and insisted that the rich clothing be given to the two slaves who had followed their master in the campaign. He said, “Their skin deserves to feel fine cloth as well as your own.” He prevailed on General Greene to distribute the clothing to the ill-clad slaves.
“I beg Mr. Jefferson that in case I should die without will or testament he should bye out of my money so many Negroes and free them that the restant sum should be sufficient to give them education and provide for their maintenance. That is to say each should know before, the duty of a cytyzen in the free Government, that he must defend his Country against foreign as well internal Enemies who would wish to change the Constitution for the worst to enslave them by degree afterwards, to have good and human heart sensible for the sufferings of others, each must be married and have 100 acres of land, wyth instruments, Cattle for tillage and know how to manage and gouvern it as well to know how to behave to neybourghs, always with kindness and ready to help them—to them selves frugal, to their children give good education I mean as to the heart and the duty to the Country, in gratitude to me to make themselves happy as possible.”
Kosciuszko also spoke out for Native Americans for the protection of their land. He was visited in Philadelphia by Chief Little Turtle of the Miami Indian tribe, who brought him a combination tomahawk and peace pipe as a sign of appreciation. Kosciuszko gave the chief his eyeglasses, his jacket, a pair of pistols and instructed the Indian leader to use these against “the first man who ever comes to subjugate you!”