In January 1785, a young African American woman named Elizabeth (Liss) was put on board the Lucretia in New York Harbor, bound for Charleston, where she would be sold to her fifth enslaver in just twenty-two years. Leaving behind a small child she had little hope of ever seeing again, Elizabeth was faced with the stark reality of being sold south to a life quite different from any she had known before. She had no idea that Robert Townsend, a son of the first family she was enslaved by, would locate her, safeguard her child, and return her to New York—nor that Robert, one of George Washington's most trusted spies, had joined an anti-slavery movement.
As Robert and Elizabeth’s story unfolds, prominent Revolutionary figures cross their path, including Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Jupiter Hammon, John André, and John Adams, as well as participants in the Boston Massacre, the Sons of Liberty, the Battle of Long Island, Franklin’s Paris negotiations, and the Benedict Arnold treason plot. Elizabeth's journey brings a new perspective to America's founding—that of an enslaved Black woman seeking personal liberty in a country fighting for its own. The 2023 paperback edition includes a new chapter highlighting recent discoveries about Elizabeth's freedom and later life.
Claire Bellerjeau is the co-author of Espionage and Enslavement in the Revolution: The True Story of Robert Townsend and Elizabeth. In 2022, she cofounded a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization called Remember Liss that educates the community about Elizabeth's extraordinary life and times. Bellerjeau formerly served as historian and director of education at Raynham Hall Museum in Oyster Bay, New York, where Elizabeth was once enslaved. She has been researching the Townsend family and those they enslaved for more than eighteen years, including curating a yearlong exhibit on the Townsend “Slave Bible” in 2005. In 2015, during a research visit to the New York Historical Society, she discovered what may be one of the earliest poems ever written by Jupiter Hammon, America’s first published African American writer. She has developed educational programs on the subjects of slavery in New York and the American Revolution on Long Island and works with teachers to develop curricula to share Elizabeth’s story using primary documents from her research. Bellerjeau lives with her husband, Chris, in Oyster Bay, New York.
Tiffany Yecke Brooks holds a PhD in American and dramatic literature from Florida State University and has spoken and published widely on early portrayals of race in trans-Atlantic performance as well as the emerging American identity in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. She was the lead researcher and contributing writer for the New York Times best-selling George Washington’s Secret Six, Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates, and Andrew Jackson and the Miracle at New Orleans, as well as for Fear Is a Choice with Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner and Limitless with Paralympic gold medalist Mallory Weggemann.
“Espionage and Enslavement in the Revolution focuses on the intertwined lives of two fascinating people who inhabited the margins of their time: a Revolutionary War spy whose own family never knew the critical role he played in winning America’s independence and the enslaved woman whose intelligence and verve ultimately transformed the spy into an ardent abolitionist. A stupendous work of scholarship and storytelling—highly recommended.”
“At a time when historically marginalized voices and stories are at last being brought to the forefront, it’s exciting to learn about a true story explaining details of the Revolutionary War on Long Island, African American history in New York, and the valiant fight for independence in a world full of loss, heartache, and eventual triumph. Claire’s research and commitment bring history to life and reveal a new African American female hero: Liss. Enjoy!”