Blog of Rights

Historic Reading of Declaration of Independence by African American Descendant of Signer

By Laura W. Murphy, Director, ACLU Washington Legislative Office at 6:03pm

Updated

On Independence Day, I will have the esteemed honor of being the first African American descendant ever asked to read the Declaration of Independence as part of a longstanding July 4th tradition at the National Archives. Recently, descendants of original signers were asked to read sections of the Declaration in homage to this country’s founding fathers. As I’m sure you can well imagine, heretofore, those descendants have been white.

It may come as a surprise that my familial background on my mother’s side is one of mixed lineage. On one hand, my fifth great grandfather was Philip Livingston of New York, one of the 56 original signers of the Declaration of Independence, on the other, my second great-grandmother Barbara Williams was a slave and concubine of the signer’s grandson, Philip Henry Livingston. The Livingstons were a prominent dynasty of merchants in the lucrative Triangular Trade of African slaves. My story illustrates the complex roots of the founders and the untold sequence of events culminating in this venerated holiday. My family lineage is now documented in the genealogical records of the National Society of Daughters of the American Revolution, of which I am a member.

Working as the Director of the Washington Legislative Office of the ACLU, I have the incredible privilege to work towards preserving the ideals and furthering the vision that our forefathers laid out when they drafted the Declaration. You would think that a document drafted so long ago wouldn’t require much maintenance, but you couldn’t be more wrong. In the words of Wendell Phillips and as oft stated by the ACLU, "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty."

When the Declaration was signed, it didn’t apply to everyone. Women, Native Americans and African Americans, were all excluded. As a part of the ACLU staff, I have had the chance to be involved in the effort to truly secure liberty and equality for all, including the LGBT community, immigrants, the elderly and the disabled, working toward the essential humanity of all individuals, building on the vision of our forefathers. But my work is far from done.

Every day that same pursuit of life, liberty and happiness is threatened for many individuals and the ACLU vigorously confronts such detriments to justice at every turn. The fundamental dignity of the individual is still subject to partisan politics and the whims of the majority, something our founding fathers might not have accounted for, but we must. The ACLU is one of the most conservative organizations for civil liberties advocacy in this country as we work to preserve and conserve the ideals set forth in the documents drafted when this nation was established.

July 4, 1776, marked the day this country declared its freedom from tyrannical British rule. This newfound liberty was first seized by white male property owners through the Declaration of Independence, and a country, built on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and protection against the excesses of government, was born. Both the signers, the slaves and the freed African Americans who worked for these rights were all integral parts in the establishment of this country, even if the latter two groups receive considerably less recognition. I am proud not only to be descended from both sides of the founding community, but also to be a part of two well-established guardian organizations, the National Society of Daughters of the American Revolution and the American Civil Liberties Union, which work tirelessly to preserve the very ideals of liberty on which this country was built 236 years ago.

On Independence Day, I will have the esteemed honor of being the first African American ever asked to read the Declaration of Independence as part of a longstanding July 4th tradition at the National Archives. Recently, descendants of original signers are asked to read sections of the Declaration in homage to this country’s founding fathers. As I’m sure you can well imagine, heretofore, those descendants have been white, but for the first time the readers will have an African American in their midst.

It may come as a surprise that my familial background on my mother’s side is one of mixed lineage. On one hand, my fifth great grandfather was Philip Livingston of New York, one of the 56 original signers of the Declaration of Independence, on the other, my second great-grandmother Barbara Williams was a slave and concubine of the signer’s grandson, Philip Henry Livingston. The Livingstons were a prominent dynasty of merchants in the lucrative Triangular Trade of African slaves. My story illustrates the complex roots of the founders and the untold sequence of events culminating in this venerated holiday. My family lineage is now documented in the genealogical records of the National Society of Daughters of the American Revolution, of which I am a member.

Working as the Director of the Washington Legislative Office of the ACLU, I have the incredible privilege to work towards preserving the ideals and furthering the vision that our forefathers laid out when they drafted the Declaration. You would think that a document drafted so long ago wouldn’t require much maintenance, but you couldn’t be more wrong. In the words of Wendell Phillips and as oft stated by the ACLU, "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty."

When the Declaration was signed, it didn’t apply to everyone. Women, Native Americans and African Americans, were all excluded. As a part of the ACLU staff, I have had the chance to be involved in the effort to truly secure liberty and equality for all, including the LGBT community, immigrants, the elderly and the disabled, working toward the essential humanity of all individuals, building on the vision of our forefathers. But my work is far from done.

Every day that same pursuit of life, liberty and happiness is threatened for many individuals and the ACLU vigorously confronts such detriments to justice at every turn. The fundamental dignity of the individual is still subject to partisan politics and the whims of the majority, something our founding fathers might not have accounted for, but we must. The ACLU is one of the most conservative organizations for civil liberties advocacy in this country as we work to preserve and conserve the ideals set forth in the documents drafted when this nation was established.

July 4, 1776, marked the day this country declared its freedom from tyrannical British rule. This newfound liberty was first seized by white male property owners through the Declaration of Independence, and a country, built on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and protection against the excesses of government, was born. Both the signers, the slaves and the freed African Americans who worked for these rights were all integral parts in the establishment of this country, even if the latter two groups receive considerably less recognition. I am proud not only to be descended from both sides of the founding community, but also to be a part of two well-established guardian organizations, the National Society of Daughters of the American Revolution and the American Civil Liberties Union that work tirelessly to preserve the very ideals of liberty on which this country was built 236 years ago.

Learn more about your rights: Sign up for breaking news alerts, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

Statistics image