From slave to spy: James Armistead Lafayette’s contributions to America’s fight for freedom

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — One of Virginia’s Revolutionary War heroes began his path to espionage at a New Kent County plantation.

“When you think about the American Revolution, you think about the usual suspects like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, all these people with deep, deep Virginia roots,” says David Voelkel. “But you don’t really start to think about the enslaved people who were also participating in this fight for freedom.”

Voelkel, the Elise H. Wright Curator of the General Collection at The Valentine, says James Armistead Lafayette’s story has all the makings of a movie.

Lafayette, a slave in New Kent County, got permission from his owner to join the Continental Army in 1781.

He was assigned to General Benedict Arnold’s British camp. During that time, Lafayette became a double agent.

“He was feeding him false information, but he was collecting information from the British,” Voelkel explains Lafayette’s role.

In fact, Voelkel says the intelligence Lafayette shared was instrumental in helping to defeat the British during the Battle of Yorktown.

“Because he was a person of color, the British would talk in front of him as if he wasn’t there and because he was a servant.”

His true identity was not uncovered until the war’s end.

In the years following, Lafayette petitioned for his freedom. It was granted on January 9, 1787.

Lafayette became a farmer in New Kent, got married, had children and owned slaves.

“He was given a pension by the state for his Revolutionary War service,” Voelkel says. “So he really did become a known patriot.”

The known patriot then sat for an official portrait, which Voelkel calls “extremely rare” for the time period. A man who had been a slave was recognized for his time as a spy.

“One can’t ever underestimate the tenacity of the human spirit, and he’s a great case study for taking what was a very difficult situation and turning it into his best advantage for himself and his family.”

The Valentine family acquired Lafayette’s portrait, and it became a part of the original collection when the museum opened in 1898.

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