African American Civil War Museum Expanding to Unveil More History

Pharoh Martin | 1/13/2010, 4:03 p.m.

Every year, an estimated 100,000 people pour into Washington, D.C., and trek over to see the striking "Spirit of Freedom€ sculpture and the etched names of more than 209,000 African Americans who served in the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War.

And yet, the museum where tourists learn about the story of how these heroic souls turned the tide of the war is the size of a very small one bedroom apartment.

"It's not so much that we don't have much on display,€ said Frank Smith, founder and director of the African American Civil War Memorial on U Street in Northwest.

€It's that we have such a small space that they can't enjoy it the way they would like it."

With only 700 square feet, Smith needs more room. And, he€s finally getting it. The former D. C. City Council member plans to move the museum to a larger building in September, using a $5 million dollar grant awarded by the District of Columbia government. The foundation that oversees the museum aims to move into the city-owned Archibald Grimke Building, which has 2,500 square feet of potential display space and is directly adjacent to the memorial statue in Washington's historic Shaw neighborhood in Northwest.

The proposed site gives Smith the ability to expand exhibits and programs as well as take advantage of modern technology such as touch screens and high-end audio-visual equipment. The current museum has 700 square feet of display space, which is only enough room to hold 10 percent of the museum's extensive collection of Civil War and Antebellum-related artifacts, documents, letters, photos and other historic keepsakes.

The memorial, museum and namesake Metro subway station anchors the historic U Street corridor, Washington's longtime epicenter of Black arts and culture. P.B.S. Pinchback, the most well-known Black soldier to fight in the Civil War, went onto live an affluent life as America's first Black governor of Louisiana €" serving only 35 days -- and then as a philanthropist in Washington where he earned the moniker €Mayor of U Street.€

Ironically, the Shaw neighborhood that U Street is a part is named after Robert Gould Shaw, the White Civil War general that the all-Black 54th Massachusetts regiment made famous by the 1989 movie, €Glory.€ The Academy Award-winning war drama piqued public interest in the topic of Blacks in the Civil War.

€Before that movie most people weren't even aware that Black soldiers fought for the Union army,€ Smith said.

Harry Jones, the museum's curator, is more critical of Glory's glaring historical inaccurate portrayal of dates, events and the regiment itself. For instance, the 54th Massachusetts was depicted as a regiment of uneducated runaways when in reality a majority of the soldiers were free-born men, some who came from independent militias.

€Glory was completely false,€ Jones said.

€In the movie's final battle at Fort Wagner, the producers claimed that the 54th Massachusetts regiment was completely wiped out and that the fort was never taken. That couldn't be further from the truth. The regiment lost 10 percent of its men in that battle and the fort was taken seven weeks later,€ he said.

Jones calls the movie an advertisement, not a documentary, on the subject. Academia and the general public were operating out of ignorance, he said.

€I tell them the story that€s quite different than what they€ve been hearing,€ Jones said.