Thursday, 27 October 2011

Extraordinary Lives 4

Col. George Middleton (1735-1815)

Earlier this month I told you the extraordinary life of Peter Sewally, an African-American cross-dresser convicted of theft. A generation earlier another African-American became notable, but in a different way. His name was George Middleton who lived with his partner Louis Clapion (or Glapion) in Boston, Massachusetts.

Both were free black Americans at the time of the American Revolution. Clapion was originally from the French Caribbean and was probably half-white. He moved to Boston to work as a hairdresser. George Middleton was probably born and raised in Boston. When the American colonists began to fight the British Middleton joined one of only 2 newly-formed all black regiments, the Bucks of America. This regiment defended Boston citizens and merchants from attack from British Redcoats. According to some sources George Middleton was commander of the Bucks with the rank of colonel, an honorary rank he kept for the rest of his life. After independence the new American state governor recognised the Bucks’ role in the defence of Boston by presenting them with their military flag (pictured).

George Middleton then became one of the first to settle in the Beacon Hill area of Boston where a small African-American community began to settle. Middleton built and lived in a new house with his partner Louis Clapion. This house still stands and is one of the oldest in Boston and a major feature in Boston’s Black Heritage Trail.

Clapion ran his hairdressing business from the house until his death in 1813 when it was carried on by his wife. Both men were married. Men in same-sex relationships often married in those days. The notion that a gay man doesn’t marry a woman is a modern idea.

George Middleton went on to become a leading civil rights leader. He formed the African Benevolent Society in 1796 which gave financial relief to black Americans in Boston, and helped to form the first school for black children.

Rather surprisingly, Middleton was a freemason. One of his friends and fellow civil rights campaigners called Prince Hall formed the African Lodge of Freemasons, and Middleton was closely involved in its formation. He also served as Grand Master of the lodge in 1809. The Prince Hall African Lodge is still in existence.

I’ll leave the summing up of George Middleton’s life with the words of Kevin Trimell Jones, founder and curator of the Black LGBT Archivists Society of Philadelphia:
“Middleton lived a life that was dedicated to service of others and the fight for civil rights. Though questions still surround his sexual orientation, it is clear Middleton maintained close relationships and associations with men … Given his stature as a leader and his selfless contributions to the entire Boston community during the American Revolution, he stands out as a heroic figure for racial and queer communities.”

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