They came out early on the Fourth of July—men, women and children, many dressed in patriotic red, white and blue. Before the parade, barbecue and fireworks, they gathered at the National Archives in Northwest Washington to kick off the holiday with a reading of the Declaration of Independence by four descendants of original signers.
But this year the program was presented with a twist—presentations by two African American descendants of men who contributed to the Revolutionary War. One of the four readers was Laura W. Murphy, fifth great-granddaughter of Philip Livingston of New York, one of the 56 signers. The keynote speaker of the event was A’Lelia Bundles, a descendant of Ishmael Roberts, who traveled with the 10th North Carolina Regiment to Valley Forge.
“Today we celebrate the Declaration of Independence, the document that was approved 236 years ago by men we have come to call America’s founding fathers,” Bundles told the audience. “…Today, I’d also like to ask you to remember and celebrate those Americans who were not inside Assembly Hall. Women. African Americans. Native Americans. Indentured servants. Small family farmers. And the generations of immigrants who arrived on our shores after the Revolution.”
She added, “They, too, had a stake in the outcome of the Revolutionary War. And though Hollywood and the history books of my childhood rendered them mostly invisible, they were not absent.”
The National Archives program marked the opening event of the annual July 4th celebration in Washington, D.C. Hundreds braved sweltering temperatures to stand on Constitution Avenue, NW to hear the program, which included short presentations by actors dressed as Declaration of Independence signers Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. Actor Noah Lewis, portraying Ned Hector, a Black Revolutionary War hero, drew thunderous applause when he recited the names of the 56 signers by colony, punctuating each with a resounding “Huzzah!” The cheer was commonly used during the Revolutionary War era, according to historical accounts.
Murphy, who is also the great granddaughter of AFRO American Newspapers founder John H. Murphy Sr., called hearing Livingston’s name “exhilarating.” She agreed with Bundles, also a descendant of Madame C.J. Walker, the Black hair care and cosmetics pioneer, that “all patriotic occasions belong to African Americans, because we were instrumental in all of our freedoms.”
The celebration, which was hosted by C-SPAN’s Steve Scully, also featured a facsimile of the Declaration of Independence available for signing and a short video presentation from the National Archives, home to some nine billion documents.
“By signing this document, their ancestors became wanted men, traitors to the King,” National Archivist David S. Ferriero said of the descendants. “We have the signers to thank for the freedoms we enjoy today.”
He urged the audience to take advantage of the information in the archives. “National Archives records can help you discover your own history,” he said.
The ceremony was attended by Maria Williams-Cole, who, like Murphy, is a Black member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, one of the country’s premier genealogical societies for descendants of the Revolutionary War era. Williams-Cole, a descendant of two members of the 10th North Carolina Colored Regiment, discovered during the event that she and Bundles had that connection in common.
“We need to talk,” she said, as Bundles spoke. “It is interesting that we have that history in common. So many people have these connections and don’t even know it.”
Besides Murphy, readers included Laura Belman and her son Jon, said to be descendants of signers Samuel Chase, William Ellery and Oliver Wolcott, and Michael Miller, who is descended from Col. William Williams. Murphy, who punctuated some of her words by pointing her lace-gloved hand in the air, drew thunderous applause as she read.
“These United Colonies are and of right ought to be free and independent states, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British crown, and that all political connection between them…is and ought to totally be dissolved!” she said. The audience cheered.
Bundles beamed as her friend spoke.
“I actually did feel a little bit of tearing when she went up there,” said Bundles, chair of the National Archives foundation board. “I was just so proud of her, because she’s such a brilliant woman, and so proud of her because she was representing not just her ancestor, not just her family, but all of us.”
Murphy said she feels fortunate to know her ties to history.
“It’s such an honor to be recognized as an African American with lineage that goes back to the founding of the country,” Murphy said. “To have my Black ancestors recognized is just very, very important because we’ve been left out of so many history books. And we need to continue to make sure that our history is put forth more accurately.”