Museum tells story of black soldiers during the Civil War
District leaders in tailored suits mingled with re-enactors portraying Union soldiers and 19th century farmwives during the grand opening Monday of the new African American Civil War Museum.
The museum is just across the street from its former location in the U Street corridor in Northwest, around the corner from the Metrorail station of the same name. But District officials hope the $5 million provided in city funds to move the museum into the former Grimke School, on Vermont Avenue Northwest, will help it tell the most accurate and complete history about black soldiers in the military.
“This museum is not just a black history story,” said Frank Smith, founder and director of the museum and nearby African American Civil War memorial. “It’s an American story of a country that changed … how people were recognized in the United States.”
The story, as visitors learn once they’ve walked through the winding exhibit, is that more than 200,000 black soldiers sacrificed their time and for many, their lives, for a cause that didn’t necessarily guarantee them their freedom, said Mayor Vincent C. Gray, a Democrat.
The museum’s floor-to-ceiling photographs of somber soldiers and the detailed timelines and maps of battles with black combatants “commemorates the commitment of people who have been underrecognized in this nation,” Mr. Gray said.
According to museum exhibits, black soldiers were given the same uniform as white soldiers: navy blue wool coats and light blue pants. However, they were not allowed to officially enlist in the Union Army until a year after the war had started in 1861 and were not allowed to carry weapons until 1863.
Much of their time was spent on guard duty or drilling, but many black soldiers were also sent on reconnaissance or scouting missions because of their knowledge of the terrain in the Southern states.
For 12 years, the museum board collected photographs, stories and documents to piece together the contribution of black people to the nation’s bloodiest war, which was “in many ways the most critical moment in American history,” museum curator Hari Jones said. “This is a museum that signifies we as Americans are moving forward with this ‘new birth of freedom,’ ” he said, closing with a phrase used by Abraham Lincoln.
Museum visitors can use an interactive search tool that allows them to see where black soldiers saw combat and to search for ancestors in the soldier database.
Judy Taylor, a resident of Northeast and a docent at the museum, said she has five ancestors who fought in the Civil War. Two of them, she recently learned, are in photographs in the museum’s exhibits.
Ms. Taylor has been training since April for the museum’s opening. She said there has been a big push to “get the word out” about the new museum because some residents don’t even know it exists.
“It’s been a really good experience,” Ms. Taylor said. “There’s so much rich history in the Civil War that’s just been uncovered.”
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