Correction: An earlier version of this article quoted Frank Smith Jr., the African American Civil War Museum’s founding director, as saying the Civil War was the only conflict in which African American troops won the Medal of Honor. In fact, many black service members won the Medal of Honor in the wars that followed. This version has been corrected.
In 1862, Abraham Lincoln went to visit Camp Barker, a contraband camp just south of U Street NW where freed and escaped slaves found sanctuary.
Nearly 150 years later, a photograph of camp residents — the slaves themselves were considered contraband of war — hangs in a museum in that same neighborhood. It shows the campers lined up, holding their hymnals and waiting for the president on a summer day.
The African American Civil War Museum is back in the business of telling the stories of slaves’ and freed blacks’ participation in that conflict. The museum, which first opened in 1999 with about 700 square feet, has moved across Vermont Avenue to 5,000 square feet in a former school building. The $5 million move and renovation, funded by the city, will be celebrated with three days of activities, ending with a ribbon-cutting July 18.
“There were more than 200,000 African Americans who fought in the Civil War. That’s 200,000 names and 200,000 stories,” said Frank Smith Jr., a former D.C. Council member and the founding director of the museum.
A case in point: Standing in front of a section dedicated to the 19,000 black sailors of the Civil War, Smith described the exploits of Robert Smalls in 1862. “Smalls, a ship pilot, was a slave who was hired out to the Confederates. When the white sailors were in Charleston on their R and R, Smalls went and got his family, took the Confederate steamer, sailed away and turned it over to the Union,” Smith said.
After the war, Smalls was elected to Congress from South Carolina and served 12 years.
An iron gate and banners with images of black soldiers mark the alley entrance to the museum, next to the old Grimke School. The museum now fits into the school gymnasium, which gives it high ceilings and a gleaming wooden stage. Arranged in one room are thematically organized panels with reproductions of illustrations and documents and some original objects that are used to tell stories from the war.
In addition to its exhibits, the museum provides space for other cultural activities. The rows of seats in front of the stage can serve as meeting space for various groups and will be the location of a film festival July 17.
“We are also going to bring in some music — 10 weeks of jazz, then 10 weeks of gospel,” said Smith, 68, who wants performances to reflect the musical history of the neighborhood as well as the military.
Yet the main goal is to tell the story of the Civil War’s African American soldiers. Eighteen soldiers and sailors received the Medal of Honor during the Civil War, and 36,000 African Americans died during the conflict, Smith noted.
In the museum, the space is punctuated by mannequins in period clothing. One is outfitted as a soldier in a blue wool jacket and light blue wool pants and carries a replica rife. Behind the soldier is a poster from the award-winning movie “Glory.” Another mannequin displays a lady’s beige-and-gold two-piece dress, perfect for a carriage outing. “We wanted to show the finery produced by slaves,” said Smith.
The last section of the museum explores the ties between the early struggle for freedom and the struggles and successes of the past 60 years. The Tuskegee Airmen are also praised for helping to break the color barrier during World War II.
Smith, a native Georgian who worked for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a movement that produced young leaders in the civil rights struggle and worked on voter registration and other projects in the South, said, “The 1960s story is a continuation of the 1860s saga, with young people giving and risking their lives.”
The museum, at 1925 Vermont Ave. NW, is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays. The African American Civil War Memorial and “The Spirit of Freedom,” a sculpture by Ed Hamilton that honors African American soldiers and sailors of the Civil War, can be visited 24 hours a day. The memorial, across Vermont Avenue from the museum, is at the U Street/African American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo Metro stop.