My favorite monument is the African American Civil War Memorial in my hometown, Washington, D.C. and my second favorite is the United States Colored Troops Memorial in Lexington Park, MD. I observed the dedications of both of these monuments.
The African American Civil War Memorial was dedicated on July 18, 1998, in tribute to the USCT. Members of the 54th Massachusetts Co. B were joined by other USCT living historians for the day long festivities. Dr. Frank Smith, founder of the museum, historians, and politicians spoke about the exploits of the United States Colored Troops and African American Sailors in the Civil War.
The African American Civil War Memorial Freedom Foundation was incorporated in 1992 to tell the largely unknown story of the United States Colored Troops (USCT). In 1993, The District of Columbia Commission on the Arts and Humanities commissioned a new memorial to African-American soldiers and sailors who fought in the Civil War. The African American Civil War Memorial Freedom Foundation and Museum developed the memorial as well as the African American Civil War Museum.
In honor of these American soldiers who fought for freedom during the American Civil War, the Spirit of Freedom: African American Civil War Memorial sculpture and its Wall of Honor, was situated in the heart of the historic “U” Street district, and serves as a reminder of the courageous story of the USCT. The sculpture portrays uniformed soldiers and a sailor at a height of ten feet with a family depicted on the back of the sculpture, and is situated in the center of a granite-paved plaza, encircled on three sides by the Wall of Honor. The wall lists the names of 209,145 USCT drawn from the official records of the Bureau of United States Colored Troops at the National Archives, on 166 burnished stainless steel plaques arranged by regiment. It was designed by Louisville, Kentucky sculptor Ed Hamilton.
African American churches played an integral role in the history of the “U” Street neighborhood—serving as not only religious centers, but as social and cultural institutions, and were often included as stops on the Underground Railroad. Slaves and runaways held religious services in tents during the Civil War— some tents later became churches. Many post-Civil War contraband camps were established in the “U” Street neighborhood – Camp Barker, the Campbell Hospital, and the Wisewell Barracks – as well as the Freedman’s Hospital, which later became part of Howard University’s Medical School.
The museum first opened in the 1200 block of U Street, a couple of blocks away from the memorial, in a small space in an office building. In 2011, the museum moved to much larger quarters, just across the street from the memorial, in the Grimke Building.
Washington Post columnist, Courtland Malloy wrote an article about Dr. Smith and the moving of the museum on July 17, 2011. The museum’s reopening coincides with the nation’s commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Also, on July 18, 1863, the Union’s all-black 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry staged its legendary assault on the Confederate battery at Fort Wagner in South Carolina.
That was the group featured in the 1989 movie “Glory,” starring Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman, with Matthew Broderick portraying Col. Robert Gould Shaw, who led them into battle.
The museum is in the Shaw neighborhood, named for the colonel. It began as a freed-slave encampment in the 1800s and became a black cultural mecca before the riots.
Dr. Smith stated, “The Civil War ought to be one of the things that black people celebrate,” Smith said. “But we tend to think of Confederate flags instead of thinking about those 209,145 black people who fought for freedom and to preserve the union, 23 winning the Congressional Medal of Honor and coming out with three important amendments to the Constitution — the 13th, 14th and 15th — which ended slavery, gave blacks equal protection under the law and black men the right to vote. It was phenomenal.”
The African American Museum and Memorial now serve as the headquarters for the living historians representing all of the United States Colored Troops and African American Civil War civilian groups. The museum is also a heritage and research center for descendants of the USCT. In May of 2015, it hosted many of these living historians in two days of programs, culminating in the 150th Anniversary of the Grand Review – celebrating the parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, reviewing Union Army of the Potomac and General Sherman’s Armies. This time, the USCT were included in the parade!
The website is www.afroamcivilwar.org
African American Civil War Museum and Memorial
1925 Vermont Ave, NW
Washington, DC 20001
On June 16, 2012, I participated with the 23rd USCT, 54th Massachusetts Co. B, and the Sons of the Union Veterans, in the dedication of the United States Colored Troops Memorial in Lexington Park, Maryland.
The introduction of the program was given by Dr. Janice Walthour, a member of the Board of Trustees for the College of Southern Maryland. She stated, “Today, we bring to fruition the vision of Idolia Shubrooks and her family. Over twenty years ago, Idolia found her grandfather’s (Pvt. Alexander Armstrong) muster papers from the USCT and began to do research and believed that a monument to honor these sons of St. Mary’s County must be established.”
The text from the program and website are cited here. The Unified Committee for Afro-American Contributions (UCAC) Monument Committee initiated an historical project to educate the citizenry and preserve local, state and national history by erecting a memorial monument to honor United States Colored Troops. It recognizes Congressional Medal of Honor recipients and all Union soldiers and sailors from St. Mary’s County who served during the Civil War. UCAC worked in partnership with the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW). Together bringing the lives of these American heroes to the attention of the public so that their sacrifices will never be forgotten.
The United States Colored Troops were regiments of the United States Army and Navy during the Civil War that were composed of African American soldiers and sailors. Recruiting stations were set up at various places by the Union. This action was taken despite the complaints of plantation owners who depended on slave labor for local agricultural needs. In St. Mary’s County during the 1800’s there were more than 6,500 slaves, and over 600 were recruited as USCT to fight with the Union to end slavery in the United States. This history is a vital part of our local heritage, and this project will create a legacy which will serve to educate the community and preserve our history for future generations.
St. Mary’s County produced two USCT recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor, Pvt. William H. Barnes and Sgt. James H. Harris. These sons of St. Mary’s County were awarded the Medal of Honor for their gallantry in the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm also known as the Battle of New Market Heights (Sept. 1864) in Varina, Henrico County, Virginia.
Nationally recognized sculptor Gary Casteel sculpted the monument. The site for the monument was donated by St. Mary’s County in John G. Lancaster Park in Lexington Park, Maryland. The statue is the centerpiece of the memorial. It shows a USCT soldier in full battle dress, as he would look marching between engagements. The service of USCT soldiers and sailors was vital to the success of Union forces in the war and would ultimately contribute to the liberation of all enslaved peoples of St. Mary’s County and the United States as a whole.
The combined living historians from the Sons of Union Veterans, the 54th Massachusetts Co. B, and the 23rd USCT, marched, held firing demonstrations, and spoke to the attendees at this momentous occasion. Many of the reenactors at this event, also participated in the 150th Anniversary of the battle of New Market Heights, where Sgt. Harris and Pvt. Barnes earned their Medals of Honor. I place this event and the New Market Heights reenactment, as two of the most significant achievements in my time as a Civil War living historian, representing the United States Colored Troops.
John G. Lancaster Park, 21550 Willows Rd, Lexington Park, MD 20653