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African American Civil War Memorial Praised

James Wright | 7/20/2011, 11:34 a.m.
Wendy Carson Smith, Julia Hudson Audrey Hinton, Jack H. Olender, Rev. Reginald Green, and Frank Smith celebrate the grand reopening of the African American Civil War Museum, as Council Member, Yvette Alexander looks on. / Photo by Roy Lewis

A museum that is designed to showcase the contributions of Blacks in the military service during the Civil War is commended for its efforts to educate the public on an unknown chapter in American history.

The African American Civil War Museum in Northwest celebrated its grand opening from Sat., July 16-Mon., July 18. Lucille Tomkins of Bowie, Md., could hardly contain her excitement.

"I am here because I love history," Tompkins, 80, said. "I am here to see and hear a new approach to history."

The effort to recognize the contributions of Blacks who served in the Union military during the Civil War started in 1993, when sculpturist Ed Hamilton was commissioned by the D.C. Commission on the Arts to create a piece that reflected soldiers and sailors, as a memorial. The bronze sculpture was presented in 1998 and there are names of the Blacks who served emblazoned on the structure. More than 200,000 Black service-members participated in the Civil War, some were "contraband" a term used for runaway slaves who secured their freedom by fighting for the Union.

The memorial is located across the street from the museum, a stone's throw from the U Street/African American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo Metro station. Dr. Frank Smith, a former D.C. Council member, is the founder and director of the complexes.

The museum, which costed $5 million to renovate, is located in the former Frances Grimke School. Boasting 5,000 square feet of space, it includes Civil War exhibits of newspaper and magazine articles, artifacts and touch screens. One of the highlights on Saturday was Harry Jones' presentation. Jones, 52 is the museum's curator.

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During his 50-minute presentation, he talked about how Blacks were instrumental in the Union force's defeat of the Confederate army in the Civil War.

"African-American soldiers, sailors and spies were indeed powerful allies for the North," he said. "They made the difference on the battlefield. Think about if you had people like [Minnesota Vikings running back] Adrian Peterson, [Philadelphia Eagles quarterback] Michael Vick, and [Baltimore Ravens linebacker] Ray Lewis fighting for you in battle."

Jones said that many of the Union's noted generals, such as Ulysses S. Grant and Sherman, could not have been successful were it not for their Black troops. He presented evidence during his power point presentation that Black troops were keys to capturing such Confederate cities as Charleston, S.C., Atlanta and ultimately, Richmond, Va., the capital.

Linda Hunt was stunned by what Jones said. Nevertheless, she said that his presentation confirmed what she has long suspected.

"I am here to learn what was left out of our textbooks," Hunt, 52, said. "I am now aware of the sacrifices and the lives that Blacks gave to this country."

On Sunday, a film festival was held at the museum site. Movies such as the discredited "Birth of a Nation" by D.W. Griffith were shown as well as "Within Our Gates", which was directed and produced by Oscar Micheaux and is the oldest known surviving film made by a Black director.

Documentaries on Emmitt Till, the Freedom Riders, and the civil rights movement ("Eyes on the Prize") were presented as well as the "Glory", the acclaimed movie about the famous Massachusetts 54th Colored Regiment. Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) toured the museum on that day.

On Monday, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), and Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), were at the museum for a reception and tour.

Conseula Madison said that the museum should be regularly visited by young people.

"These young people need to understand that they are a part of history and a part of this society," Madison of Southeast, said. "We as Black people made great contributions to history. The parents need to teach their children history and talk to their children about history." Tompkins said that the museum is filling a void in African-American history that many think has lost its relevance.

"I think it is important that we need to know about anything that has happened," she said. "Knowing our history will enable you to deal with your future."