Today in History

Today in History: June 17

The Battle of Bunker Hill

Battle of Bunker Hill
Battle of Bunker Hill,
E. Percy Moran, artist,
copyright 1909.
Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

On June 17, 1775, American troops displayed their mettle in the Battle of Bunker Hill during the siege of Boston, inflicting casualties on nearly half of the British troops dispatched to secure Breed's Hill (where most of the fighting occurred).

Map showing the action at Bunkers-Hill
A plan of the action at Bunkers-Hill, on the 17th. of June, 1775…,
By Sir Thomas Hyde-Page, 1775.
Map Collections

Approximately 2,100 British troops under the command of General Thomas Gage stormed Breed's Hill, where colonial soldiers were encamped. In their fourth charge up the hillside, the British took the hill from the rebels, who had run out of ammunition. After suffering more than 1,000 casualties during their attacks on Breed's Hill, the British halted their assaults on rebel strongholds in Boston. The last rebels left on the hill evaded capture by the British thanks to the heroic efforts of Peter Salem, an African-American soldier who mortally wounded the British commanding officer who led the last charge.

When George Washington assumed command of colonial forces two weeks later, he garnered ammunition for Boston troops and secured Dorchester Heights and Bunker Hill.

Several speeches in the American Memory collection African American Perspectives: Pamphlets from the Daniel A. P. Murray Collection, 1818-1907, contain references to Peter Salem, the former slave and hero of the Battle of Bunker Hill:

Mr. Everett has described Peter Salem, a black man, and once a slave, as having been among the most prominent and meritorious characters at the battle of Bunker's Hill. Indeed, the historical painting of that scene, by Col. Trumbull, an eyewitness, done in 1785, gives Peter Salem , with other black patriots, a conspicuous place. One of the latter is thus commemorated:

"To the Honorable General Court of the Massachusetts Bay: The subscribers beg leave to report to your Honorable House (which we do in justice to the character of so brave a man), that, under our own observation, we declare that a negro man, called Salem Poor, of Col. Frye's regiment, Capt. Ames' company, in the late battle at Charlestown, behaved like an experienced officer, as well as an excellent soldier. To set forth particulars of his conduct would be tedious. We would beg leave to say, in the person of this said negro, centres a brave and gallant soldier. The reward due to so great and distinguished a character, we submit to the Congress."
Cambridge, Dec. 5, 1755.

"A Reading on Slavery, from the Early Presidents."
Opinions of the Early Presidents, and of the Fathers of the Republic, upon Slavery and upon Negroes as Men and Soldiers.
Prepared for the Celebration of Washington's Birthday at Lyceum Hall, Salem, February 22, 1863.
African American Perspectives: Pamphlets from the Daniel A. P. Murray Collection, 1818-1907

Learn more about the Battle of Bunker Hill in American Memory:

Spirit of '76
Spirit of '76, American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, 1905.
The American Variety Stage: Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment, 1870-1920

James Weldon Johnson

Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.

James Weldon Johnson, "Lift Every Voice and Sing (external link)," written in 1900 on the occasion of Abraham Lincoln's birthday and published in Saint Peter Relates an Incident: Selected Poems (New York: Viking Press, 1935).

Portrait of James Weldon Johnson
Portrait of James Weldon Johnson,
Carl Van Vechten, photographer,
December 3, 1932.
Creative Americans: Portraits by Carl Van Vechten, 1932-1964

Poet, diplomat, songwriter, and anthologist of black culture James Weldon Johnson (external link) was born on June 17, 1871, in Jacksonville, Florida. He attended Atlanta University, where he earned A.B. and M.A. degrees, and Columbia University in New York City.

Johnson began his career as principal of the segregated Stanton School in Jacksonville. He began practicing law in Jacksonville in 1898, upon his admission to the Florida bar. In 1901, he moved to New York City with his brother, composer John Rosamund Johnson. In New York, the Johnson brothers wrote some 200 songs for Broadway productions.

President Theodore Roosevelt appointed James W. Johnson United States consul to Venezuela in 1906. In 1920, he became the chief organizer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Of his many accomplishments, Johnson is best known for his poetry and his anthologies of African-American poetry. An important figure in the Harlem Renaissance, Johnson provided invaluable encouragement and recognition for the influential generation of artists coming of age in the 1920s and 1930s.

Carl Van Vechten, self-portrait
Carl Van Vechten,
Self-Portrait,
Carl Van Vechten, photographer,
May 8, 1934.
Creative Americans: Portraits by Carl Van Vechten, 1932-1964

Carl Van Vechten, the photographer responsible for the portrait of James Weldon Johnson pictured above, was born on June 17, 1880, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. During the late 1910s and early 1920s, Van Vechten, formerly a music and dance critic at The New York Times, developed an interest in promoting black artists and musicians. His portrait of Johnson is one of several he took of prominent figures of the Harlem Renaissance.

Search the following American Memory collections for more information about Johnson, Van Vechten, and the period in which they lived: