African American Civil War Museum

Washington, D.C.;

The African American Civil War Museum, now 12 years old, is tucked away on Vermont Avenue, NW, off U Street, the historic heart of Washington’s black community. Situated halfway between Ben’s Chili Bowl and Howard University, the museum deserves to be as celebrated as those venerable D.C. institutions. It sprang from the austere, modestly enthralling African American Civil War Memorial located across the street. Ed Hamilton’s bronze Spirit of Freedom, which depicts black soldiers, sailors, slaves and children, and the names of 209,145 black soldiers who fought for the Union are worth inspecting before venturing into the museum’s rich, unexpected exhibits.

The museum’s objective: to place the Civil War in the foreground of African-American history. As founding director Frank Smith puts it, “The struggle for freedom didn’t end when slavery ended. It began almost as soon as we were allowed to fight in the war.” Nevertheless, slavery is hardly brushed aside here. Near the entrance, there are shackles to be seen, as well as a $600 bill of sale dated 1834 for a slave girl and other details illustrating the stubborn presence of the “peculiar institution” in American life. Here as elsewhere in the museum, less familiar elements are delicately woven into a well-known narrative. The words of African Americans like journalist-soldier Martin Delany and physician-abolitionist John S. Rock, for instance, are given as much importance as those of Frederick Douglass.

Those whose knowledge of black Civil War soldiers begins and ends with Glory, the 1989 movie, might be surprised to learn that Kansas, site of some of the bloodiest antebellum battles over slavery, was the first state in the Union to organize what the museum terms “an African-descent regiment” (the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers). Interactive displays allow visitors to track down black regiments from other states. (In all, there were 142; seven were cavalry units.) The Union Navy, fully integrated at the time, had black engineers, gunners and more. Black women also served. Mary Elizabeth Bowser and Mary Touvestre, freed slaves who spied for the Union while embedded near the heart of the Confederacy in Virginia, appear in a display with other unsung women. The documents, medals, film clips and rare books on display and in the museum archives relate largely to the Civil War. But they also chronicle the service of blacks in subsequent American wars and the Freedom Rides of the civil rights movement, implicitly tying the long struggle for equality together. Pointedly culminating the exhibit is a life-size cutout of President Obama, ready for picture-takers to pose with.


Originally published in the December 2012 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.