African American Civil War Memorial and Museum
1925 Vermont Ave., N.W. Washington, D.C.
“This is heavy!” exclaims a young boy trying on a Union sack coat. Not far away, a woman gingerly fingers a pair of coffle shackles hanging from a wall. “Go ahead,” a staffer encourages her, “lift them.” A visit to the newly renovated African American Civil War Museum is clearly meant to be a visceral as well as intellectual experience. Many of its exhibits are challenging—just as they should be.
Since its 2011 reopening, the museum is much better equipped to chronicle the complex story of the African-American experience. Located in the former gym of a school, it has grown from 700 square feet to about 5,000, with room for more exhibits, a larger auditorium and event space. Exhibits are chronologically arranged overall, covering a broad swath of history. Themes also emerge: courage, economics, enfranchisement and empowerment. It is only fitting, for example, to include Buffalo Soldiers and Tuskegee Airmen, as well as a Jim Crow-era sign proclaiming, “We Serve Colored—Carry Out Only.” Yet the focus is primarily on the more than 200,000 “men of African descent” who fought for the Union, and also the countless slaves and freed men and women affected by the war.
The battle sections offer a fresh take on common knowledge. Alongside coverage of the 54th Massachusetts’ assault at Battery Wagner are displays on lesser-known engagements, such as the 2nd South Carolina Volunteer Infantry’s raid at Combahee Ferry in South Carolina. Interactive screens offer more info on regiments and engagements. A wall of fame for the 23 U.S. Colored Troops who earned the Medal of Honor is terrific.
Some visitors may find the layout a bit awkward. Entry is through a small gift shop, after which visitors see a series of displays surrounding a large auditorium. But after that, the exhibits flow from one room to the next.
The display on Frederick Douglass includes a quote that sets the tone for the entire space: “It is not light that we need, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, the earthquake—the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed.” Exposing that hypocrisy, and the battles won and lost since the war, is this museum’s mission, in which it succeeds.
No visit would be complete with a walk across the street to the African American Civil War Memorial. Also check out the museum website (afroamcivilwar.org).
Originally published in the February 2012 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.