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The Spy Museum Has a Play About a Slave-Turned-Spy Who Helped Win the Revolutionary War

James Lafayette. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

As part of its programming for Black History Month, the International Spy Museum this weekend will feature a short, one-man play about a slave-turned-spy who worked to defeat the British in Virginia. In 1781, six years into the Revolutionary War, a black slave named James from New Kent County, Virginia enlisted in the US Army. Serving under the command of the Marquis de Lafayette, James assumed a unique role as a spy, crossing enemy lines posing as a runaway slave to gather intelligence on British troops led by Lord Cornwallis.

James risked his life to bring information from Cornwallis’s camp to the Marquis de Lafayette as each side strategized their battle plans around Yorktown. The “enclosures” James shared with Lafayette helped the French officer develop plans that led to the decisive British defeat at Yorktown, which led to the war’s conclusion.

While many slaves who fought for the US were granted freedom–to whatever extent was possible at the time–after the war, James was not. His espionage did not qualify as “fighting,” despite both Lafayette’s and James’s owner petitioning the Virginia government to overturn this double standard.

This double standard was particularly upsetting to the Marquis de Lafayette and James’ slaveowner, both of whom helped petition the state to free James. About three years later, in 1787, James was granted his freedom and he took the name Lafayette in honor of the Marquis.

Jamar Jones plays James in the show, in which Jones interacts with a video projection. Kicking off Black History Month, the International Spy Museum will be featuring two free, 30-minute performances of Slave Spy: The Story of James Lafayette on Saturday. You can find out more here.

Rosa is a senior editor at Bitch Magazine. She’s written for Washingtonian and Smithsonian magazine.