History Ph.D. Dissertations

Freeborn Men of Color: The Franck Brothers in Revolutionary North America, 1755-1820

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)



First Advisor

Ruth Wallis Herndon

Second Advisor

Lillian Ashcraft-Eason (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Rebecca Mancuso (Committee Member)

Fifth Advisor

Radhika Gajjala (Committee Member)


This dissertation examines the lives of William and Ben Franck, freeborn men of color, who used military service as a means to assert their manhood, gain standing in their community, and help to create free African American and African Canadian communities during the Revolutionary Era. It focuses on the lives and experiences of the Franck family from the 1750s, when Rufus Franck served in the French and Indian War, until the 1820s, when his younger son, Ben Franck, settled in Nova Scotia.

At each step of the story, this study analyzes the communities of free people of color with whom the Franck brothers interacted. In doing so, this project challenges traditional narratives and stereotypes of African Americans during the Colonial and Revolutionary Eras. The Franck brothers' individual histories, closely analyzed, have the power to expand the prism through which we view early American people of color, so that we see their reality more sharply in three ways.

1. The establishment of free families of color and communities throughout North America, from the pre-Revolutionary period until postwar America, was limited by social prejudices and legal prohibitions. Legally, they were constrained by the black codes. Economically, they were relegated to menial, lower paying jobs. And socially, they faced discrimination in terms of housing, schooling, and religious practice. Despite these difficulties, many free blacks were able to build homes, communities and social institutions.

2. The service of freeborn men of color as Continental regulars during the Revolutionary War meant a hope for a better life and standing in their community, opportunity for economic competency, and excitement for young men whose experiences were stunted by black codes which regulated their behavior.

3. The experiences of black loyalists after the American Revolution included a pattern of migration and settlement in search of land and economic competency. The refusal to migrate to Sierra Leone, by some, indicated an attachment to their lives and families in Nova Scotia.