Friday, February 3, 2017

A Spy Called James - Black History and the American Revolution

A Spy Called James: the true story of James Lafayette, Revolutionary War double agent
by Anne Rockwell; illus. by Floyd Cooper
32 pages; ages 7-11
Carolrhoda Books, 2016

We know the names of those leaders who led our emerging country through the Revolutionary War: Washington, Marquis de Lafayette, Franklin, Jefferson... But, as Anne Rockwell writes, "America would not have won independence without the courage of thousands of people whose names never became famous."

One of those people was James, enslaved by a farmer named William Armistead. James had heard that an enslaved man could win freedom by fighting for the colonies, so Armistead allowed him to join Lafayette's army. Under orders, he dressed in tattered clothing and presented himself to Cornwallis and Benedict Arnold as a runaway slave. He would gather information and sneak it back to Lafayette.

James was so good at "serving" Cornwallis that the British general asked him to spy on the Americans. And so James began the dangerous job of being a double agent.

The war officially ended in 1783, but for James there was no victory. While blacks who served as soldiers were granted freedom, James's work as a spy didn't earn him that reward. Eventually Lafayette heard about this gross injustice and wrote a letter to the US government. James adopted the last name Lafayette and became a farmer.

There is great back matter, including a note in which Rockwell mentions that, as a free black man, James bought slaves to work his farm. I wanted to know more...

A thicker, heavier volume includes stories of more black men and women who played a role in America's Revolution:

Answering the Cry for Freedom
by Gretchen Woelfle; illus. by R. Gregory Christie
240 pages; ages 9-12
Calkins Creek, 2016

Gretchen Woelfle has gathered 13 stories of little-known African American preachers, writers, soldiers, organizers, and enslaved workers. Some escaped to freedom with the British; others fought for freedom at home.

Stories include James (the spy), poet Phyllis Wheatley, Ona Judge who was owned by Martha Washington, and John Kizelle who escaped to Nova Scotia and later worked to end the slave trade in Africa. After reading these stories you'll ask: Why haven't we heard about these courageous people before?

On Monday we'll join the roundup over at the Nonfiction Monday blog where you'll find even more book reviews. Review copies provided by publishers.


  1. I hadn't heard of either of these books, but I will definitely be checking them out. Thanks for the post.

  2. Sally: Thanks for the mention of ANSWERING THE CRY FOR FREEDOM.