In the 400th year since the first enslaved Africans reached the shores of America, a groundbreaking in the nation’s Capital has begun a monumental $45 million expansion of a facility to honor Black veterans of the Civil War – slaves and descendants of slaves – who literally fought their way to freedom.
“You all know that we started this African American Civil War Museum for two purposes – one was to correct a great wrong in history, which pretty much ignored the contributions of African-American soldiers ending slavery and keeping America united under one flag,” Dr. Frank Smith, executive director and founder of the African American Civil War Museum, told a packed house in D.C.’s historic Shaw neighborhood Oct. 17.
Smith continued the brief history lesson before the rapt audience: “Lincoln ended up enlisting two hundred thousand Blacks in the Union Army. The nation paid no attention to these soldiers until we built a monument to them.”
Just across the street from the museum, which is housed in the historic Grimke School building on Vermont Avenue North West, is a bronze memorial, a statue of three soldiers standing guard. The statue is surrounded by a wall with the carvings of 209,145 names of those who served among the United States Colored Troops.
That museum and memorial – fixtures in the U Street community for the past 21 years – are about to undergo a $45 million expansion project that will accomplish the second purpose for which the museum was built. In addition to providing greater space for artifacts and programs to honor the Black soldiers, it is expected to create an economic boom in the once depressed area as people come from across the nation to visit the historic spot.
D. C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and her staff, helping with the ground breaking, led the way to the new beginning for the project after several pauses due to stormy political waters and budget problems over the years. The grand opening is finally set to take place in the fall of 2020.
As with any new development, amidst all the pleasantries and congratulations, there are yet controversy and questions.
Dr. Smith forthrightly addressed the issue of gentrification as well as how crime in the Shaw neighborhood had to be dealt with as the neighborhood has gradually changed over the years.
Current Ward I Councilmember Brianne K. Nadeau, having worked on the project for 15 years, described, in part, how the gentrification issue will be dealt with.