A Proud Heritage: Historians and History Buffs Work to Close the Knowledge Gap about Black Civil War Soldiers

By Stuart, Reginald | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, February 3, 2011 | Go to article overview
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A Proud Heritage: Historians and History Buffs Work to Close the Knowledge Gap about Black Civil War Soldiers


Stuart, Reginald, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


NASHVILLE -- When Reavis L. Mitchell Jr. was plowing his way toward a doctoral degree in the 1960s and 1970s, hardly a word was taught about Black soldiers in the Civil War.

"The perception was the Black man didn't participate in the war, that they (Black men) were passive in wars, not participators," says Mitchell, a dean and professor of history at Fisk University and a member of the Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission of Tennessee. "Participation suggests ownership in something. If you start presenting people as soldier, you give them manhood."

Mitchell's educational experience on the topic mirrors that of most American students in the 150 years since the war began in 1861. The big headline--that the Civil War freed the slaves and ended the Southern rebellion--overshadowed many of the rich details about Black contributions. Even now, little is taught about the estimated 200,000 Black men (many of them runaway slaves) who suited up as Union soldiers. Federal records show that Blacks represented nearly 10 percent of the Union army by the time the war ended. Even less is said of the thousands of Black women who supported them.

Today, Mitchell finds himself among a small, loose-knit but growing cadre of historians and history buffs working to close the knowledge gap about the Black Civil War experience. The battle is being waged on several fronts.

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The war is being revisited in some college history courses and is being championed this year by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. The nation's oldest largest organization Black historians, ASALH was founded by the late Carter G. Woodson, who also founded what is now Black History Month. The group's theme for Black History Month 2011 is "African Americans and the Civil War."

The role of Blacks in the Civil War is being rediscovered, talked about and relived on historic Civil War battlefields across the Midwest and South by Black men and women participating in Civil War re-enactment groups as members of United States Colored Troops (USCT) regiments. More than 100 USCT units were organized by the Union during the war, including the 54th Massachusetts USCT. That regiment was memorialized in the 1989 motion picture "Glory."

Meanwhile, the search for a greater sense of the history of Black men in the Civil War is being casually and formally explored by other history and genealogy enthusiasts. It's happening in the reclaimed classrooms of the Bradley Academy Museum and Cultural Center, a small community museum in Murfreesboro, Tenn., home of the 13th USCT. It will happen in the halls of the 5,000-square-foot African American Civil War Museum, set to open this month in the nation's capital. People are interviewing neighbors and poring over thousands of federal documents at the National Archives and other facilities hoping to put lives and family histories to the names of thousands of Blacks who served and/or died to save the Union.

Black history advocates and others are hoping for a boost from Civil War sesquicentennial commemoration activities planned throughout the country over the next four years. hope to generate a groundswell of interest in reading, understanding and appreciating the full role of Blacks in the Civil War.

"The only way the history (of the Civil War) will be as inclusive as it should be is if we take ownership," says ASALH executive director Sylvia Cyrus, adding that the nation is still "woefully lacking in the history of Blacks in the war."

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Recognition Overdue

Taking ownership is what a small group of Black men in Middle Tennessee did when they learned by chance that they had grown up in a region rich with Civil War history.

"Before I became knowledgeable, I had all this rage," says Dr. George Smith, a family physician in Murfreesboro and national president of the United States Colored Troops Living History Association (USCTLHA).

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