Today I have the pleasure of attending a special Black History Month program at U.S. Marshals Service Headquarters titled “African-Americans in the Civil War.” The event’s keynote speaker is Dr. Frank Smith Jr., director of the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum here in Washington DC. According to his bio: "Frank Smith, Ph.D., during his four elected terms with the District Council, Washington, DC, laid the basic groundwork to establish a national memorial for African American troops who served in the Civil War. Fulfilling a lifelong dream to honor African Americans who fought for freedom as USCT, he oversaw the dedication of the African American Civil War Memorial in July 1998. Toward that goal, Dr. Smith used a lifetime of leadership experience to secure financing, District support, and the active involvement of public and private agencies to establish the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum." I will post a recap of the event and hopefully some personal insights from Dr. Smith who I hope to introduce myself to during the reception. Stay tuned.
UPDATE: Today’s presentation was outstanding and I was very impressed with Dr. Smith’s speech. He began by acknowledging the great opportunity that has been bestowed upon all of us with the Sesquicentennial. He also mentioned several events that had already taken place in commemoration of the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War including the Secessionist Ball and Inauguration of Jefferson Davis re-enactments. Respectfully, he offered his own opinion by saying that there are some celebrations that should take place and others that should not. He added that our country is far better off today because of the Civil War. I think we can all agree on that.
The main focus of his speech was the Emancipation Proclamation. After giving a strikingly honest portrait of Abraham Lincoln as a consummate politician (who later turned liberator), he explained the president’s intent of preserving the Union at all costs. He then stated how lucky we were that the South did not accept a reconciliation that was put forth by Lincoln in 1862. Immediately I noticed several audience members around me reacting puzzled to this statement. Dr. Smith went on to explain that it was only after the Confederacy’s rejection of Lincoln’s terms that African-Americans were allowed to serve in the Federal Army. He then went on to tie the contribution of the U.S. Colored Troops as paving the way for the Civil Rights Movement.
In closing Dr. Smith correlated the challenges that were put forth on President Lincoln entering office to those met by President Obama and added that both presidents likely had a “Not on my watch" mentality when they took over from previous administrations that were dealing with some heavy issues. He then challenged all of us to continue to work towards freedom and justice for all.
It was very impressive to see an historian at an event like this speak so candidly. Far too many speakers IMO "play" to the audience at functions of this nature. Dr. Smith was completely understanding of the South's economic dependence on slavery (regardless if it was morally wrong), frank about Lincoln's racist views early in his career, and sincere on the gratitude owed to the USCT. As there was so many senior level staff around the speakers following the program, I did not want to interrupt them to introduce myself. I do plan on sending Dr. Smith a follow-up email and making time to visit the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum.Days like today reinforce the pride that I have working for an organization like the U.S. Marshals Service. To be a part of an agency that spends such a great deal of time promoting both history and diversity is a blessing indeed.