African American Civil War Memorial sits in front of the wall with the names of the 209,000 Black Union soldiers and their White officers. The Guinness Book of World Records has declared the Memorial

Dr. Frank Smith, founding director, African American Civil War Memorial. Photo source:TriceEdneyWire.com
Dr. Frank Smith, founding director, African American Civil War Memorial. Photo source:TriceEdneyWire.com

African American Civil War Memorial sits in front of the wall with the names of the 209,000 Black Union soldiers and their White officers. The Guinness Book of World Records has declared the Memorial as having the “most names on a war memorial.”

(TriceEdneyWire.com) - One of the nation’s most significant war memorials sits at the top of the U Street Corridor Metro exit in Washington, DC, oddly planted in front of a few houses and an office building. You could almost miss it among the daily raucous in the neighborhood.

Earlier this year, on the first day of Black History Month, the Guinness Book of World Records declared the African American Civil War Memorial as having the “most names on a war memorial”. Located in Northwest D.C. at 1925 Vermont Ave., the memorial lists the names of more than 209,000 Black Union soldiers and their White officers.

It’s a recognition that tells a much deeper story.

“For more than 25 years we’ve worked hard to tell the story of these important soldiers,” said Dr. Frank Smith, founding director of the African American Civil War Memorial Freedom Foundation. “Their stories have been forgotten by this country and this international designation helps the world understand its importance.”

Smith says it was not until his teenage years that he learned of the contributions of African Americans during the Civil War. Since then, he has made it his life’s mission to bring awareness about the Black soldiers who fought for a country that did not even consider them humans, let alone Americans.

“They didn’t teach us this in school when I was growing up. We didn’t learn Black people, who weren’t even free, were putting their lives on the line for this country. Many of them were fighting for the opportunity just to fight for this country,” said Smith.

At the start of the Civil War, abolitionist Frederick Douglass tried to persuade President Abraham Lincoln that enlisting Black soldiers in the Union would help the North win the war and would be an important step toward equality in the nation.

Douglass argued, “Once let the Black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S.; let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.”

Lincoln, however, was not convinced. He feared that granting African Americans their freedom, specifically former or escaped slaves, would drive the border states to join the Confederacy. It took signs of the Union possibly losing the war for Lincoln to change his stance and allow African Americans to enlist.

The passage of the Second Confiscation and Militia Act in 1862 was the first step toward enlisting African American soldiers in the Union Army. The law did not explicitly invite African Americans to join the war, but rather, it granted Lincoln permission to employ African Americans in the army as he deemed fit.

Still, African Americans saw this as their opportunity to join the battlefield in hopes of gaining their freedom, often forming their own infantry units. The Civil War’s official call for Black soldiers was not issued until 1863. Thousands of African Americans answered the call, many of whom escaped enslavement from the Confederate states to join the fight.

“People don’t know [Lincoln] didn’t even want us fighting in the war,” said journalist and Black historian Peter Bailey. “That’s the story they didn’t want us to know. They kept that story hidden from us for hundreds of years.”

Bailey explained how Black soldiers were fighting a war on multiple fronts. They were not only fighting to end slavery but were persistently confronted with racism by White Union soldiers who believed Black soldiers weren’t as brave or skilled. They were also at risk of being enslaved or executed on the spot if they were captured during battle.

By the end of the war, about 180,000 Black soldiers–10 percent of the Union Army–fought in the war. About 90,000 of those soldiers were former enslaved people from the Confederate states.

Smith and Bailey agree that the untold grueling; yet courageous experiences of Black Union soldiers is why the Guinness recognition is so important and impactful.

“It shows clearly that this country did not give us freedom the way it’s always been portrayed that it was,” said Bailey. “We [gained] our freedom because Black soldiers played a major role in defeating the Confederacy. That had been ignored for centuries and even today, it doesn’t get as much attention as it should.”

As of today, there has been no official acknowledgment of the designation by any federal government agency. Smith, however, says he’s not too concerned about the lack of acknowledgment. While the memorial serves as a poignant symbol of African Americans’ contributions to this country, it is still intended to be a tourist attraction. Smith hopes the recognition will attract more visitors to the location.

“People travel all over the world visiting destinations referenced by the Guinness Book of World Records,” Smith says. “My hope is that we’ll attract more international visitors who will learn that African Americans were not just bystanders in the fight for freedom. We put our lives on the line for it.”

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