Black History Month Ideas: African American Spies, from the Revolution to the CIA

The CIA has an incredibly interesting article available on their site titled Black Dispatches: Black American Contributions to Union Intelligence During the Civil War

It provides details about African-American spies and the work they did to provide intelligence for the Union.

Spies ranged from Harriet Tubman, better known for her work in helping escaped slaves find their way to freedom on the Underground Railroad to William A. Jackson – a slave in the Confederacy’s presidential household who provided invaluable information to his northern contacts. You can find out about more Civil War spies here.

Still with the CIA, they have a list of operatives who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country: https://www.cia.gov/news-information/featured-story-archive/2014-featured-story-archive/remembering-cias-african-american-heroes.html

Other agents include James Armistead  a slave of William Armistead in New Kent County, Virginia, he volunteered to spy for the Continental army commander General Lafayette. James became a servant to British general Lord Cornwallis, who asked him to spy on the Americans! As a double agent, James gave unimportant information to Cornwallis, while keeping Lafayette informed about British troop strength and positions. James Armistead remained enslaved after the war. In 1784, Lafayette wrote to theVirginia General Assembly, describing his valuable service and asking that he be freed. In 1786, he was freed—and from then on, he called himself James Lafayette.

Born into extreme poverty in St Louis Missouri Josephine Baker went on to become a vaudeville star, was recruited into an all black dance troupe and went to Paris. In 1940 she became a spy for the French Resistance, while she picked up intelligence at parties, her fellow secret agent Jacques Abtey, masquerading as her assistant, recorded the information in invisible ink on her sheet music.

On her return to the USA she fought segregation across the states and ended up on an FBI watch list.

Activity Idea:

There are several methods one can use to make invisible ink:

  • Lemon juice & water – made visible by heating paper
  • Baking soda in water – made visible with dark fruit juice concentrate
  • Write with white crayon – made visible paint over with watercolors

    Once you have decided which technique to use encourage attendees to choose a spy, or more than one if they are feeling adventurous and create an invisible drawing of the agent or write a secret message to a friend hidden in another message.

    They could even create a cipher and make an invisible, encoded message.

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