NC man finds slave-turned-patriot ancestor

A descendant of a chieftain’s son kidnapped from Africa and sold into slavery in Massachusetts more than 250 years ago will become the first black member inducted into a North Carolina chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution this weekend.

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 after fighting for American independence against the British.

Moore, a native of Worcester, Mass., only recently learned he had an ancestor who had joined the Colonists’ side during the Revolutionary War.

“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 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, according to The Associated Press.

The involvement of blacks on the American side during the Revolution is an often overlooked fact. Many blacks, both enslaved and free, sought to join with the Colonists, believing that it would either lead to their freedom or expand their civil rights, according to Philip Foner’s work, Blacks in the America Revolution.

American states had to meet quotas of troops for the Continental Army, and New England regiments recruited black slaves by promising freedom to those who served.

During the course of the war, it is believed about 20 percent of the northern army was black, while at the Siege of Yorktown in 1781, Baron Closen, a German officer in a French regiment, estimated that the American army was made up of about one-quarter black troops.

Moore’s knowledge of 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, according to The Associated Press.

Her biological mother, Almira Sullivan, had died in 1883, and she was a descendant of Toby Gilmore, slave and patriot, the wire service added.

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 he was kidnapped by slave traders 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, although 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, according to The Associated Press.

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.

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