By Corynn Johnson
WASHINGTON – Frank Smith, founding director of the African-American Civil War Memorial and Museum, tells a story about Robert Smalls, an African-American soldier who became a congressman.
Smalls was a slave who worked on ships for the Confederate Army; he planned to escape by sailing the Confederate ship he worked on, which was loaded with important equipment for two Confederate forts.
He succeeded, and provided the Union Army with valuable information about the Confederate Army.
Smalls was considered a hero and used the recognition to win political positions, starting with the South Carolina House of Representatives. He served there from 1865 to 1870, then was elected to the South Carolina state Senate from 1871 to 1874. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and served from 1875 to 1879.
Smith, an authority on Civil War history and the role of African-Americans, has recounted that story many times over the past 20 years. And now he is focusing on revamping the Civil War Museum – set for its grand opening in July.
“America wouldn’t be America without the Civil War,” said Smith, who wants visitors to the museum, in Northwest D.C. near the Mount Vernon Metro station, to know that African-Americans played an important role in history.
“Racial reconciliation in the United States started with the Civil War,” he said during an interview with high school students about this year’s 150th anniversary of the war.
“There was no way to ever have racial reconciliation in America with 3.9 million people held as slaves,” he said.
Blacks formed the Colored Troops who fought with the Union Army for their freedom.
Smith describes how these men earned the right to vote on the battlefield and how the Civil War was the only war in which African-Africans won the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest honor given for valor in a war.
“Twenty three of these men won the Congressional Medal of Honor for the Civil War — 23 blacks,” Smith said. “By contrast, no blacks won the Congressional Medal of Honor in World War I or II. None.”
Founded in 1999, the African-American Civil War Memorial and Museum was built, according to Smith, to “correct the wrong of leaving the black soldiers out of the history books.”
Just blocks away is a bronze sculpture of uniformed black soldiers and a sailor. It is surrounded by a Wall of Honor, a memorial listing the names of 209,145 Colored Troops who served in the Civil War.
Smith said he hopes to encourage tourists to travel beyond the National Mall and visit the museum, which sits on historic U Street. He said he believes that kind of foot traffic would lend to the area’s revitalization.
“I want tourists to spend one day in this neighborhood patronizing the businesses,” Smith said.
Smith became fascinated with the Civil War while doing civil rights work in Mississippi, when a man showed off a picture of his grandfather in uniform.
Today, Smith operates the only Civil War museum dedicated to African-Americans.
Its new location is already gaining some buzz. In the same building a docent training program was under way.
Ingrid Armstrong-Doweary, an African-American who is training to become a docent and is a self-described history buff, became interested in working at the museum while researching family history.
She was shocked to find that she actually had a relative who fought in the Civil War and whose name is actually on the wall around the Civil War monument.
When asked why she wanted to get involved with the museum, she cited a career opportunity, and a chance to learn the museum industry.
It’s just the kind of generational involvement that Smith hopes will continue.
“Every time a new grandchild is born, you need to bring them up here and show this to them,” he said. “It’s our job as parents and grandparents to prepare the next generation. If we don’t do that nobody’s going to do it.”