A good preacher would say a story has a beginning, middle and end, according to the founder of the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum, Frank Smith. For the museum he spearheaded, the beginning came in the 1800s, but the ending has yet to come.
For its 20th anniversary, the museum will take four days this month, July 18 to 21, to celebrate the future and reflect on the past. Activities honoring the memorial’s 1998 unveiling will include a prayer breakfast, living history presentations, a lecture series, book signings, and an awards gala at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
“This is the heritage of the black community; we lift each other up,” Smith said in an interview with The DC Line. “That is what museums do — [they tell] you stories about people who have overcome great odds and done great things in this world.”
For Smith’s museum, these stories come from the 209,145 members of the United States Colored Troops who served in the Civil War. The museum’s primary goal is “correct a great wrong in the history that largely ignored the enormous contributions” of these troops, according to its website.
Tucked away just off the historic U Street corridor, the 1925 Vermont Ave. NW museum guides visitors from the beginnings of slavery in America through the civil rights era and present day.
Historical interpreters like Jerome Taylor help fill in the narratives.
“My job is to portray the U.S. Colored Troops and to inform the public what a soldier looked like,” Taylor said. In full uniform, Taylor walks around exhibits either to give tours or to stop and answer questions.
His tours begin with the story of George Washington Williams.
“[The museum] was built in 1988, but was first attempted to be built by George Washington Williams in 1877 [after being] unable to do so during the slave time,” Taylor said.
Williams — a Civil War soldier who became a politician, lawyer and author of books including History of the Negro Race in America From 1619 to 1880 — provided the inspiration for the museum, according to Smith.
Smith picked up from Williams’ goals 100 years later, as the Ward 1 representative on the DC Council from 1983 through 1998.
For Smith, who grew up in Georgia riding in the back of segregated buses and who went on to organize voter drives in Mississippi and Alabama for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Council, it was important to change what he considered the prevailing historical narrative of the Civil War.
“The losers of the Civil War — the Confederate South — wrote the story,” he said. “They wrote the movies, they created the songs, and they tried to prove to the world that slavery was so good that African-Americans helped to fight to save slavery. Instead of telling the real story, which is that 200,000 joined the Army and 150,000 were slaves when they first started fighting.”
Walking through the exhibits recently, one visitor stopped to take a photo. Darlene Gartrell, a lawyer from Los Angeles who said she’s become “a student of the Civil War,” chose to drop by the museum during her DC trip.
“I literally got chills when I walked through the entryway because I studied it,” Gartell said. “But walking through the door, I felt like I was transported back to what our ancestors fought for.”
Her response is one that Dawn Chitty, the museum’s director of education, sees often.
“There’s the story of triumph that is underlined in the United States Colored Troops,” Chitty said. “It is just the emotion that sets me back because I’ve worked in the historical field for a long time.”
Smith noted that many visitors have a personal connection to the museum, as direct descendants of troop members. Often, people will find the names of their ancestors inscribed on the memorial wall, locatedacross the street from the U Street Metro entrance.
“Almost every day a descendant walks in and they tell me that this name on the wall is their great-great grandfather,” said Smith. “It brings these names alive for us because it goes from just being a name on the wall to being someone I feel like I know.”
Leading up to the 20th anniversary, the staff is busy prepping for the celebration, which will include appearances by elected officials including DC Mayor Muriel Bowser. This past Saturday, a group of volunteers cleaned up the memorial to give the names of the soldiers an extra shine, according to WTOP.
The anniversary will also feature a lecture series dedicated to George Washington Williams, and the debut of a heritage trail in his honor.
The museum’s staff is also looking to the future, planning for an expansion within the Grimke building. The broader renovation plans for the former school building have been in the works for many years, but the museum is now hoping for a 2020 opening in its larger space, according to Chitty.
“In Washington DC, everything takes longer than you think, and it costs more than you think,” Smith said with a laugh. “On the other hand, I am always pleasantly surprised by how much the support we are able to get from the public and from churches.”
As part of the redevelopment plan, the museum has a $3.4 million grant to create a new theater, add more artifacts, and open a new exhibit on former first lady Michelle Obama.
During the 20th anniversary celebration, staff members want to have an open dialogue with the public about the museum’s future exhibits and programming.
“They can expect … us to reach out to our patrons, constituents and friends to really get a feel for what more they want to see from us in the next 20 years or foreseeable future,” Chitty said.
A partnership with Howard University for the new heritage trail is one example of the museum reaching outward. Celebrating the legacy of Williams — who studied briefly at Howard — the trail will extend from the university to the museum.
According to Smith, Howard will incorporate the trail as an element of its freshman orientation. “So every freshman will get a name, [they will be] pointed to this trail, and they will walk down to the memorial to find the name they will represent while at Howard,” he said.
For Gartrell, who visited the museum solo one day in June, it’s now a goal to return later with her husband and son.
“When I think about my young son, we have to learn our history,” she said. “I think America, especially our education system, just does a poor job of teaching our history. … [I want to] make sure my son understands African-American history and the pride that goes with it.”
Smith said this goal — of educating and enlightening young people — is another important one for the museum and its board of directors, which includes president Audrey Hinton, vice president Jack H. Olender, secretary Reginald Green, and board members Wesley Taylor and Lee W. Jackson.
“It’s important for our young people to know that although slavery might have lasted in the United States for 250 years, black people had resisted,” he said.
Beyond depicting the history of slavery and the war, the museum also highlights more recent achievements of blacks in the U.S., including narratives of early civil rights leaders and, as its concluding exhibit, the election of former President Barack Obama.
“When I started working on this in 1988, I had no idea that one day an African-American would be elected president of the United States,” Smith said. “I can’t think of a better ending to this story.”
Full details of the 20th anniversary can be found on the museum’s event page.