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First Martyr of Liberty

Crispus Attucks in American Memory

Mitch Kachun

Publication Date - January 2020

ISBN: 9780190092498

328 pages
6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches

In Stock


First Martyr of Liberty explores how Crispus Attucks's death in the 1770 Boston Massacre led to his achieving mythic significance in African Americans' struggle to incorporate their experiences and heroes into the mainstream of the American historical narrative. While the other victims of the Massacre have been largely ignored, Attucks is widely celebrated as the first to die in the cause of freedom during the era of the American Revolution. He became a symbolic embodiment of black patriotism and citizenship.

This book traces Attucks's career through both history and myth to understand how his public memory has been constructed through commemorations and monuments; institutions and organizations bearing his name; juvenile biographies; works of poetry, drama, and visual arts; popular and academic histories; and school textbooks. There will likely never be a definitive biography of Crispus Attucks since so little evidence exists about the man's actual life. While what can and cannot be known about Attucks is addressed here, the focus is on how he has been remembered--variously as either a hero or a villain--and why at times he has been forgotten by different groups and individuals from the eighteenth century to the present day.


  • Most thorough study of what is known about the life of Crispus Attucks.
  • First extended analysis of the role of Attucks in American history and memory.
  • Figure has been referenced constantly in popular culture throughout the centuries, inc. current series "Luke Cage."

About the Author(s)

Mitch Kachun is Professor of History at Western Michigan University. He is the author of Festivals of Freedom: Memory and Meaning in African American Emancipation Celebrations, 1808-1915 and co-editor of The Curse of Caste; or the Slave Bride: A Rediscovered African American Novel by Julia C. Collins.


"A kaleidoscopic social biography of how Crispus Attucks obtained immortality, symbolism, and continued dynamism through his actions against British troops occupying areas of Bostonâ. First Martyr of Liberty is an excellent read to explore how myths proliferate, how scholarship can illuminate, and how one can choose to commemorate a sacrificed life." -- Ida Jones, Journal of African American History

"well written, thoroughly researched, and filled with cogent analysis about the memory of Crispus Attucks. Kachun deserves commendation for his judicious discussions of the relationship between history and memory, of what the narratives woven concerning Attucks demonstrate about society's collective memory, and of why the story of a man killed over two and a half centuries ago still resonates today. This is a book that will work well in upper-division undergraduate classes as well as graduate seminars, and that will also appeal to non- academic readers." -- Evan C. Rothera, Historical Journal of Massachusetts

"[A] great read for a grounded biography of the man... and a thorough examination of intention in American history."--Netisha Currie, Federal History

"This intriguing and thoughtful book explores how and why Attucks gained prominence and meaning during different periods in US history, and how memories of Attucks echoed those times....Kachun's book is a fascinating exploration of those meanings and of the nature of historical memory in the US....Highly recommended."--CHOICE

"Hero or dockside rowdy, freedom fighter or not-quite-so-innocent bystander, Crispus Attucks is a mysterious figure whose role in this nation's 'creation story' we continue to debate. In this beautifully written and wide-ranging study, Mitch Kachun uncovers as much about changing perceptions of America over the two and a half centuries since the Boston Massacre as he does about Attucks himself. First Martyr of Liberty is a superb contribution to the scholarship on history and memory-and a compelling read from start to finish."--Julie Winch, author of A Gentleman of Color: The Life of James Forten

"In his examination of the identity and memory of Crispus Attucks, Mitch Kachun mines and weighs available evidence to demonstrate the ways the story of the Attucks of the Revolution became important during the nineteenth century fight against slavery and illuminated black identity and manhood in the turbulent mid-twentieth century. With exemplary research and analysis, Kachun provides a model for the historian's craft, explores the creation and role of myth in history, and provides a valuable addition to work on history and memory."--Lois E. Horton, author of Harriet Tubman and the Fight for Freedom

"Kachun has done a masterful job in finding and assembling the evidence for this book...Kachun shows us how one man became a symbol of bravery and selflessness to a community continually under siege by the wider society, and in so doing, he has made a valuable contribution to the field of historical memory." --Judith L. Van Buskirk, William and Mary Quarterly

"An important contribution to both Black intellectual history and the scholarship on American memory. Drawing on an impressive array of sources...Kachun convincingly demonstrates the significance Attucks wielded in African American culture and politics since the antebellum period. This elegantly written and tightly argued study should be of interest to all students and scholars of African American history and American collective memory."--Christopher Cameron, The Black Scholar

"What does it mean to write the biography of a person who left so few traces in the historical record, but about whom so much has been written and for whom so much has been claimed? Through painstaking research, sustained analysis, and artful prose, Mitch Kachun provides a compelling answer to that question...This is a balanced and judicious assessment....In all his manifestations, as Kachun demonstrates so well, Crispus Attucks illustrates the never-ending contest for meaning that shapes our historical consciousness."--Eric Hinderaker, New England Quarterly

"Kachun's book offers much more than a biographical sketch of Crispus Attucks. His inclusion of both professional history and popular culture provides a variety of perspectives. Ultimately, his exploration of how Americans of various skin colors and political ideologies have used Attucks for their own purposes says a great deal about Americans and the nation they are still in the process of creating."--Beverly C. Tomek, American Historical Review

"This engaging book will be of particular interest to scholars of African American history, memory, and popular culture; indeed, anyone who discusses Attucks in their scholarship or teaching will want to consult this book, to make sure that they are not recycling hoary errors, which continue to be propagated over the Internet as never before."--Jonathan D. Sassi, Journal of American History

Table of Contents

    Chapter 1: Who Was This Man?
    Chapter 2: The Dustbin of History: Crispus Attucks and American Amnesia, 1770s-1840s
    Chapter 3: First Martyr of Liberty: Crispus Attucks and the Struggle for Citizenship in the Civil War Era
    Chapter 4: Crispus Attucks Meets Jim Crow: The Segregation of American Memory, 1870s-1910s
    Chapter 5: Crispus Attucks Meets the New Negro: Black History and Black Heroes between the World Wars
    Chapter 6: Crispus Attucks Meets Dorie Miller: Black Patriotism and Activism in the World War II Era
    Chapter 7: Crispus Attucks and the Black Freedom Struggle, 1950s-1970s
    Chapter 8: Crispus Attucks from the Bicentennial to the Culture Wars, 1970s-1990s
    Chapter 9: Crispus Attucks in Twenty-First Century America

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