DC Boasts US' Largest Exhibit On Blacks In Civil War

The African-American Civil War Museum in Washington has been going through a major revamping as 2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the north and south's bitter battle between 1861-1865. To learn about the museum's grand re-opening, which is scheduled for July, and the history of African-Americans in the Civil War, guest host Tony Cox speaks with the museum's founding director Frank Smith.

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TONY COX, host: This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox. Michel Martin is away.

Coming up, my "Can I Just Tell You?" commentary on educating African-American males.

But, first, the African-American Civil War Museum in Washington, D.C. is gearing up for a major festival to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. The museum's interactive exhibits tell of the sacrifices that African-Americans have made for freedom. Many of us have been taught about the history of the Civil War, including the Union's bloody victory at Antietam in September of 1862.

But did you know that the Civil War was the only war in U.S. military history in which African-American troops have won the Congressional Medal of Honor?

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "FOR THE LOVE OF LIBERTY")

AVERY BROOKS (Narrating): Roughly 36,140 African-Americans died in the service of the United States during the Civil War.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BROOKS: Eighteen black soldiers and seven black sailors were recipients of the Medal of Honor.

Unidentified Singer: Tell me, tell me...

COX: That's a clip from the film "For Love of Liberty," one of several that will be showcased at a major festival at the African-American Civil War Museum in mid-July.

To learn more, we have invited Frank Smith to join us on the program. He is the founding director of the African-American Civil War Memorial Foundation and Museum. Frank, welcome to the show.

FRANK SMITH: Thank you, Tony. Thanks for having me.

COX: Before we go into the upcoming festival and what else is new at the museum, I'd like to ask you to briefly talk about how the museum came into being.

SMITH: OK. Well, you know, we started the museum for two purposes. One was to correct a great wrong in history, which pretty much left all the information about these African-American soldiers out of the history books and out of the movies and out of the plays and various media by our society.

And secondly - the second purpose was to try to contribute to the revitalization of U Street, that was devastated by the riots of 1968. And we had to try to find a way to get some of these tourists who was coming down to the Mall, spending millions of dollars on the Mall, but would not leave the comfort of the Mall.

So we wanted to build something that would be a strong enough attraction and compelling enough so it would lead them all and come up to the historic neighborhood, and enjoy some of the great festivities that we have there.

COX: How would you describe, for a person who was interested in coming and has not yet been there, what are some of the main - I don't want to say attractions; that's the wrong word - but you know, the main features of the museum?

SMITH: Well, we have an award-winning monument itself, first of all, that is built by a black sculptor from Louisville, Kentucky, Ed Hamilton. And then surrounding that sculpture is walls that have the names of 209,145 African-Americans who fought in the Civil War.

We have three times the number of names as enrolled on the Vietnam Memorial. The Vietnam Memorial only has 58,000 names. We've got 200,000 names of African-Americans who fought in the Civil War. This is one of the best-kept secrets in the history of the United States.

And so we put them on these stainless steel plaques out in the public. And then over the years, we have gathered love letters and photographs and various other things. And we've used those to form this new museum, which we are featuring - that's going to open in the middle of July.

COX: You know, we talk a lot about spies these days, television shows, movies. That's a really big and hot kind of topic. And yet you don't always associate that with A, the Civil War, and certainly not with African-Americans in the Civil War. But history suggests - doesn't it - and your facility shows that there were some black spies during the Civil War.

SMITH: Absolutely. Absolutely. Actually, the best known of which, actually, was Harriet Tubman, who actually got paid. We have a pay slip that was paid to her, and it says that she was a spy for the Union Army. So Harriet Tubman had worn a lot of hats. And one of the hats she wore was that of a spy. But if you start thinking about it for a moment, you say, well, the State of Mississippi, the black population outnumbered the white. In the State of Georgia, it outnumbered the whites when the Civil War started.

So these people who had oppressed and abused and misused, these people become the federal government's best allies in terms of telling the government and the Union Army soldiers where the food is, and where the animals are, and which way these Confederate criminals that they're chasing down - who committed treason against the United States.

So these people become the nation's best allies. And it's only when Lincoln gets blacks fully engaged in the Civil War via the Emancipation Proclamation that they get the full use and the full value of these blacks.

COX: Tell us about the soldier named Smalls. Who was he, and what did he do?

SMITH: Well, Robert Smalls is a great story, and that - people who live in South Carolina probably know this story already. But when the Civil War starts, Robert Smalls is an enslaved black person who is a ship's pilot. And his job is to guide these ships in and out of these harbors. And he is engaged by his owner, hired out to the Confederacy to help the Confederates. The Confederates were trying to retain slavery, and trying to keep Robert Smalls and people like him enslaved.

And so Robert Smalls was working for them, but he used his knowledge and his information to find a way to get his freedom. So there came a time when Robert Smalls was able to take that ship himself - to commandeer this ship. And one weekend when all of the other sailors, the white sailors, were going into Charleston for R and R - which sailors out there will recognize as an excuse to go ahead and get drunk for the weekend; they went in to get drunk for the weekend - Smalls went in and got his family, sailed that ship out, turning it over to the Union Army.

After the war, he comes home as a war hero, gets elected to the South Carolina State Legislature, and eventually served 12 years in the United States Congress as a senator - I mean, a congressman from South Carolina. He goes from being a slave to being a soldier to being a citizen politician here in Washington, D.C.

COX: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox, sitting in for Michel Martin. We're talking about the revamping of the African-American Civil War Museum with its founding director, Frank Smith.

Frank, I suppose that a great deal of this information that is contained within the walls of the museum - and the festival that you're putting together - is still not finding its way into history books that our children are being taught from.

SMITH: Right. Absolutely. As a matter of fact, you know, we had a big snafu right across the river here in Virginia recently, when they put out a textbook over there that said there were 30,000 blacks who were enrolled in the Confederate Army. They realized they had made a big mistake. This is one of the biggest lies in history, and they had to retract the book and go out and find themselves another book.

But the question is, how did it ever get that far in the first place? How did it get into a textbook that's adopted and purchased and circulated throughout the state? So - but thank God we've got - there are now four years of this sesquicentennial celebration to work on these facts and work on this information, and work at getting this information into school houses and into the libraries and museums that are developing around the country. And so it's a great opportunity for us, and we're having a good time at it. And we expect the world to know a lot more when this is over.

COX: Now, I understand that the museum first opened in either - was it 1998, 1999?

SMITH: No, it was 2000. Yes.

COX: 2000.

SMITH: Right.

COX: So this is a - in a sense, a reopening.

SMITH: It's a reopening. Yes. Yeah, we had a small museum that was a few hundred square feet, about 600 or 700 square feet. And we've always wanted to move into a much larger space. We now have 5,000 square feet of exhibit space that's dedicated to these African-American soldiers. We have the largest exhibit in the country on these soldiers. And so we are inviting the public to join us for a grand opening the weekend of July 16, 17 and 18. We're going to have three days of celebration, and then one of those days is a film festival called Civil War, Civil Rights Film Festival. We're going to show movies about the Civil War. We're going to show "Gone With the Wind." We're going to show "Birth of a Nation." We're going to show the movie "Glory." We're going to show a bunch of things, and then we're going to show the evolution. You will see - begin to see the evolution of blacks as they appear in these various movies. And so this is important, I think, because the media is such a powerful force in our society now, and we want to show people how blacks have evolved to the point where we can now have a Barack Obama as president of the United States.

COX: Let me ask you one last thing about this. Do you see exhibits like this - I mean, if it's already happened, pardon me for asking - traveling, and going to other parts of the country?

SMITH: Absolutely. As a matter of fact, we are mapping out a plan right now for four years of activity, where we would start with this kickoff year - here on July 16, 17, 18 - and then we're going to every year have a festival someplace throughout the country. We're going to go south to Alabama and to Mississippi, and then north to New York and other places. And as we go there, we're going to leave exhibits behind, and we're also going to train docents there to tell their stories. So we're looking forward to these next four years of making this nation fully aware of the importance that black people played in making America a better place.

You could not have racial reconciliation in America until you got rid of slavery. It took the Civil War to do that. You could not have racial reconciliation in America until you got rid of Jim Crow. You couldn't have racial reconciliation in the country with all these black and white signs, and black people being intimidated by the Ku Klux Klan. So we had to wipe all that away. It's a great story, really. It's really the story of what America is all about.

It's what it was for always, for white people. It didn't become this way until blacks - until we had to go through all these years of struggle, starting with the Civil War and then the Civil Rights Movement, 'til we get to the point where we are today.

COX: Frank Smith is the founding director of the African-American Civil War Memorial Foundation and Museum. He was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C., studios. Frank, thank you very much. It sounds like a fascinating ...

SMITH: Well, thank you very much. Now we are located at 1925 Vermont Avenue Northwest, and we want people to come by to visit us, the African-American Civil War Museum.

COX: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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