Ebony Eyes: Teaching about African American Civil War Heroes through Art

By Marbley, Aretha Faye; Rouson, Leon et al. | Black History Bulletin, Summer-Fall 2010 | Go to article overview
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Ebony Eyes: Teaching about African American Civil War Heroes through Art

Marbley, Aretha Faye, Rouson, Leon, Pratt, Comfort, Manigault, Emily, Phelan, Kathleen, Black History Bulletin

   Molding stern-faced soldiers/Reflections of your
   mind/and in your dreams you gallop on horses
   of the night./You slip on ancient civilizations/
   Wearing it like a well-cut suit,/But behind your
   eyes the savage lies,/ Dormant till let loose./Fiery
   eyes in ebony,/How long the masquerade?/Until
   the drums of God call/ And raise this dormancy
   from the grave. (1)

In great numbers, African Americans volunteered to fight in every major United States war, including the Civil War. These unsung heroes of the Civil War, many of them still slaves, fought with gallantry though not necessarily with sanction or approval, respect, recognition, or honor from the United States.

Today, award-winning art depicting African American Civil War heroes resides in collections of private investors, historical societies, national archives, tourist bureaus, national parks, and museums, etc. Many artists in many genres have attempted to bring honor to these African Americans through the literary, performing, and fine arts. That is, artists from different ethnic and racial backgrounds have honored these soldiers through sculpture, photography, painting, sketches, film, music, and literary works. For example, William Earle Williams, Professor of Fine Arts and curator of photography at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, has lectured extensively on African American soldiers and the Civil War experience. Civil War art tells the story of African American patriotism, bravery, heroism, sacrifices, and loyalty, and it captures the devastation of slavery as well as the spirit, energy, and resiliency of African Americans.

Additionally, the work of internationally renowned sculptor Eddie Dixon, honors the Civil War heroes such as Bass Reeves, Moses Williams, George (Bill) Goldsby, William Carney, and Decatur Dorsey. Bass Reeves served in the Civil War and later became a U.S. marshal in the Oklahoma and East Texas territories, serving as one of the first Black federal lawmen west of the Mississippi. (2) First Sgt. Moses Williams served in the Civil War and later joined the Ninth Cavalry, where he received the Medal of Honor during the Indian Wars. (3) Master Sgt. George Goldsby served in the Civil War, then joined the 10th Cavalry and served at Fort Concho. (4) First Sgt. William Carney was the first African American soldier to be awarded the Medal of Honor, in recognition of his service with the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in the Battle of Fort Wagner on Morris Island, South Carolina. (5)


In an effort to contribute to oral histories, we interviewed sculptor Eddie Dixon, and this is his story:

An internationally acclaimed historical sculptor, Eddie Dixon was born in 1950, into a military family; he spent much of his childhood in California. At the age of 6, his mother gave him modeling clay for Christmas, and he began to model toys and other items. Shortly after entering college, Dixon was drafted into the Army and served from 1968 to 1970. While a graduate student, he started sculpting in earnest and began to research African American history. This research uncovered a new world for Dixon--a world inhabited by the most persevering, tenacious and resilient people, the majority of whom he knew nothing about. Dixon realized that he could bring these unsung heroes to light and leave a tangible reference point for himself and others through his art. And so, he began sculpting African American Civil War soldiers, then Buffalo Soldiers, followed by African American soldiers in World Wars I and II as well as Black cowboys.

In 1992, Dixon was commissioned by General Colin Powell to create the 17-foot National Buffalo Soldier Monument at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. More than 20,000 people, including more than 100 veterans of the Buffalo Soldiers Regiments' Ninth and Tenth Cavalries, attended the dedication of Dixon's larger-than-life sculpture of a mounted buffalo soldier.

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