In the U Street neighborhood in northwest D.C., there is an often overlooked Civil War monument. A monument to men who fought and died for their country.
Following the resurgence of white supremacist demonstrations and the violence in Charlottesville, many questions have been raised about the historical significance of Confederate war memorials. In the United States there are roughly 1,500 place names, symbols and statues honoring the Confederacy and Confederate figures, as identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center. This number includes around 100 public schools named after Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and other Confederate figures. A majority of these monuments appeared years after the Civil War, during times of racial tension. Following Brown v. Board of Education there was a spike in the number of schools named after Confederate figures.
Dr. Frank Smith, Director of the African American Civil War Museum, remembers growing up in Newnan, Georgia under the shadows of Confederate Statues. “I suppose they just wanted to remind us,” he said, of the Confederate statue that stands in Newnan’s Court Square.
Dr. Smith was involved in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and remembers attending the funerals of the girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963. The original bell from the church is now in the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, adjacent to the church.
The African American Civil War Museum seeks to tell the history of the African Americans who fought for the Union during the war, both in the Army and the Navy.
Marguett Milton is one of several historic interpreters at the museum. The historic interpreters lead visitors through the museums exhibits, demonstrate rifle drills and share the stories of Civil War figures.
“They were issued the same uniforms and equipment,” explained Marquett Milton while demonstrating how to load a Enfield rifle-musket. Several documents displayed in the museum outline the equipment assigned to Company G of the 46th U.S. Colored Infantry.
The African American Civil War Memorial is rarely included in tour company itineraries. It honors the African American soldiers and sailors who fought for the Union. Their numbers accounted for one-tenth of the U.S. Army’s manpower during the war.
The statue at the center of the memorial depicts African American soldiers from the United States Colored Troops and an African American sailor from the U.S. Navy. “They served in every branch of the U.S. military,” Milton explained.
Plaques around the statue list the names of more than 200,000 African American Soldiers who served in the U.S. Army and Navy during the Civil War. By comparison there are slightly less than 60,000 names on the Vietnam Wall.
Despite the metro station named for it, and the large number of soldiers honored here, the African American Civil War Memorial is often overlooked and relatively unknown to the wider public.
In contrast, the Lincoln Memorial, not far away on the National Mall, remains the most visited landmark in D.C. with nearly 8 million people making a pilgrimage to the memorial in 2016, according to the National Park Service.
On August 28, 1963, MLK delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the
Lincoln Memorial. Today a plaque marks the spot where the civil rights leader gave what would become one the most influential speeches of the Civil Rights Movement.
Our nation’s history is checkered at best, a history that is not easily forgotten but often mischaracterized.
As we move forward it is important to learn from this history: both its triumphs and injustices, its freedom and oppression.
But it is more important that we decide which figures in our history should be glorified, those who sought to split up our union or those who fought to save it.