In 1775, freed slave Peter Salem of Framingham mortally wounded British Major John Pitcairn at the Battle of Bunker Hill.
On Friday, June 17, on the 241st anniversary of the Revolutionary War battle, Congresswoman Katherine Clark placed flowers on Salem’s grave in the Old Burying Ground in Framingham.
Clark said the the life and death of Salem is a reminder that we need to work harder to provide for our Veterans with the supports they need and to continue to fight against themes of racism and religious intolerance.
During the Revolutionary War, George Washington originally said that no slaves nor freed salves would be in his army. The British said they would accept all, and then Washington changed his mind.
Among those who enlisted was Salem, who is buried in the potters field section of the Old Burying Ground, an area designated for the poor and indigent.
“The most striking thing about Salem – to me at least — is the breath of his service during that war,” said Framingham Town Historian Fred Wallace, during the small ceremony on Friday.
“Starting in 1775, he was with the militia in Framingham who marched to Concord & Lexington, that famous battle that really marked the beginning of our independence,” said Wallace. “Following, that we all know his action at Bunker Hill.”
In September of 1776, when British forces invaded New York and threatened to split our Colonies in two, Salem re-enlisted in the Framingham militia and was engaged in the Battle of White Plains, explained Wallace.
A few months later, in January of 1777, Salem enlisted in a 3-year hitch with the Continental Army, and soon found himself on the front lines, including action in the Battle of Saratoga.”
In the spring of 1780, Salem was discharged. That is when Salem “found out that life was not easy here for a freed person of color.”
He left Framingham and settled in Leicester, where he “eked out a living weaving baskets and caning chairs.”
“Old age and infirmity took a toll on him,” explained Wallace, and as it was custom in Colonial Days he was returned to the community of his birth, as he could not care for himself.
“But he was speared the indignity of being put in the poor house, as two former officers of the Framingham militia – Major Lawson Buckminster and Captain Belknap – provided a fund to support him throughout his life,” said Wallace. “Salem was allowed to live out his finals days here in Framingham in relative comfort.” At the age of 66, Salem died on August 16, 1816.
In 1882, the Town of Framingham, “realizing his contribution to this country’s history, cleaned up this part of the cemetery and places a suitable monument for Peter Salem,” said Wallace.
Among those who attended Friday’s ceremony with Wallace, Framingham Veterans Agent Peter Harvell, and the Congresswoman was Catherine Tucker.
She was the wife of Orrie Tucker, one of the first members of the an all African-American elite U.S. Army Rangers unit.
Tucker, who graduated from Framingham High in 1946, as its class president and football captain, died in 2008.
“That was quite an accomplishment for a young black man in those days,” said Harvell.
Tucker, who grew up on Walnut Street, after high school chose to enlist like six of his brothers, said his wife.
“He went to the segregated South, and it was quite the experience for him,” said Catherine.
Eventually he became part of the first and last all African-American ranger company, she said.
The U.S. Army created four ranger units – 3 were all-white and one all African-American.
All four were sent to North Korea to deal with guerrilla warfare, explained Harvell. “Orrie’s unit was quite successful.”
Tucker also came home from serving his country in the military and struggled for a while with civilian life.
The tales of “Salem and Tucker are so tied together,” said Congresswoman Clark. “It reminds us of how we treat our Veterans when they come home.Unfortunately, their story is often today’s story too.”
“This is a history we have to remember, as it plays out today for so many of our Veterans and their families,” said Rep. Clark. “Veterans come home after serving our country and are destitute and have a hard time finding work, and they don’t get the supports they need. We are working on changing that.”
Salem and Tucker remind us that “we just can’t function with out the women and minorities in our military to protect our country,” said Harvell. “We have to be inclusive.”