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New Caretaker for Tribute to Black Troops

After Long Dispute, D.C. Gives Civil War Site to Park Service

By Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 21, 2004; Page C04

The trees around the African American Civil War Memorial have been trimmed, and the grass is freshly cut and cleared of trash. Several leaks have been fixed. But a few of the 209,145 names of black Union troops, and those of their white officers, engraved on the stainless steel plaques are still water-damaged.

The National Park Service took over basic upkeep and maintenance of the neglected memorial late last month after signing an agreement transferring control of the site from the District to the federal government. The remaining repairs, Park Service spokesman Bill Line said, will be done on an ongoing basis.


The African American Civil War Memorial, dedicated in 1998, was barely maintained while under the District's care. (Dudley M. Brooks -- The Washington Post)

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Line said a park ranger knowledgeable about the role of black soldiers and sailors during the war will soon be stationed at the memorial, in a federal park at 10th and U streets NW and Vermont Avenue, Wednesdays through Saturdays at midday, the peak time for pedestrian traffic.

The memorial became embroiled in a dispute over who should care for it soon after its dedication in 1998. Financed by a private foundation and built by the D.C. Department of Public Works, the memorial was supposed to be a gift to the nation. But the National Park Service, which is charged with maintaining such memorials, wanted the city to address basic repair and maintenance issues before including the site in its portfolio.

City officials refused to get the memorial in tiptop condition until the Park Service set a transfer date; the Park Service said it would not set a date until repairs were done.

After extensive lobbying by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Frank Smith, a former D.C. Council member who founded the African American Memorial Freedom Foundation, the District government gave the Park Service $200,000 to do the repairs, and the transfer was arranged.

"We finally just reached the point where there was not a credible excuse anymore for not accepting the memorial," said Smith, who had sought help from Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Alphonso Jackson and other prominent government officials.

The memorial, which includes a graceful bronze sculpture by Ed Hamilton of three black soldiers and a sailor leaving their tearful families, is now listed on the Park Service's Web site (www.nps.gov) and included in other promotional material. Line said rangers participated in Veterans Day ceremonies organized at the site by the foundation and eventually hope to become a daily presence there.

The memorial is the first in the country to honor all African American soldiers and sailors, and their white officers, who fought in the Union Army. Smith said he hopes the memorial, just outside the U Street/African-American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo Metro station, will one day achieve the prominence of Ford's Theatre and other local Civil War-related sites maintained by the Park Service.

Two blocks away, at 12th and U streets, is the African American Civil War Memorial Museum, also run by Smith's foundation. Smith said he eventually wants to move the museum to the old Grimke School building directly across Vermont Avenue NW from the memorial.

A ceremony was held at the memorial Oct. 27 to officially transfer the title from the city to the Park Service. Smith said he hopes to hold a larger event to celebrate the transfer on May 22, which is Founders Day, the anniversary of the day in 1863 when the U.S. War Department established a separate bureau to authorize and organize black troops.

Smith said he would like to invite descendants of some of the soldiers and sailors whose names are inscribed at the memorial, as well as President Bush and former president George H.W. Bush, who signed legislation that helped create the memorial.

Presidents traditionally have attended ceremonies marking the transfer of major military sites to the Park Service, Smith said. He pledged to push hard to have the current president attend.

"There's been so much slighting in the past" of black Union soldiers and sailors, Smith said. "We're not going to let them be slighted this time. We're not going to let that happen here."


© 2004 The Washington Post Company