Today my good friends of the 23rd Regiment of the United States Colored Troops held an open house at the John J. Wright Educational & Cultural Center Museum. The center, which houses a museum, is built on the original site of the first high school for black students in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, which was founded in 1913. The original 23rd USCTs were also local to Spotsylvania, and had the distinction of being the first group of black troops to fight in direct combat with Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, proving once and for all that black soldiers were just as capable and brave as their white counterparts. Despite the fact that the group has only been around for a year and a half, other cities with significant ties to the history of USCTs, such as Petersburg, are reaching out to them in hopes of building their own CT regiments.
As the (148th) anniversary of the Battle of the Crater approaches, the 23rd USCTs talked to an intimate group about their goal of spreading awareness about colored troops’ contributions during the Civil War, as well as issues surrounding discussion of uncomfortable subjects like slavery, secession, and brutality towards colored troops during the war.
One member, Kevin Williams Sr., said often when he dons the uniform, he doesn’t always get a positive reaction. Surprisingly, he said that sometimes that negative reaction comes from other African Americans.
"Sometimes, you have to let them unleash on you, and then you can minister back, and then you see the light come on," Williams said.
He tells other prospective re-enactors, “If you do not have the emotional maturity to do this, don’t do it.” Whatever resistance he encounters, however, is worth it to him. “African Americans want to learn the history that was kept from them.”
The history Williams’ is referring to is not only that of colored troops’ contributions during the war, which almost none of the group members learned in high school (ironically, many of them learned about USCTs through the movie Glory), but also the idea that slavery was a major, if not the main, cause of Southern secession.
John Cummings, a historian who portrays a white officer in the regiment, said he was proud to be a member of a group that worked to spread these stories, particularly to students.
"If these stories are not brought to things like schools, they’ll just fade away. But the good news is that the history we’re fighting over is being approached by fresh minds. These kids are blank slates and a lot of them are perplexed by the concept of segregation and racism."
The 23rd USCTs will be at the re-enactment of the Battle of the Crater on July 28th at Petersburg National Battlefield in Virginia.
(Top photo from left to right: Steward Henderson, John Cummings, Reverend Hashmel Turner, and Kevin Williams, Sr.)