As the nation commemorates the American Civil War’s 150th anniversary, many Americans are taking a special interest in the role their ancestors played in the pivotal conflict.
Although Rob Williams lives in the shadow of Stone Mountain with its famous carving commemorating Confederate heroes, his interest is in educating people on the role Black people played in America’s wars—especially the American Revolution and the Civil War.
“There is so much that people don’t know about Black involvement in the military,” said Williams, who was a civilian employee of the Department of the Army before he retired in 2007. Williams said that a prominent historian in the 1920s wrote that Blacks are the only enslaved people who played no role securing their own freedom. “He said we just sat around train stations playing banjos and waiting for Union soldiers to come do something for us. Many people believed that until the  movie Glory came out.”
Williams now spends much of his time teaching about Black soldiers who fought on both sides in the Civil War. “People don’t want to believe that there were Black soldiers in the Confederate Army, but there were,” he said.
“Many Blacks joined the Union Army because they were guaranteed the opportunity to learn to read, write and understand numbers. Black soldiers may have been critical in the Union victory because so many White soldiers were wounded or killed or went home after their tour of duty was up. The Union desperately needed men. Lincoln’s decision to enlist Black soldiers may have turned the tide for the Union,” Williams continued.
There were also Black spies, he said, citing the story of Mary Elizabeth Bowser, who served as a maid in the Confederate White House.
“They held important conversations with her in the room because they assumed she was too ignorant to know what they were talking about, but this woman had been to college and she had a photographic memory. There also was a Black coachman for Confederate President Jefferson Davis who spied for the Union.”
Williams has created a collection of uniformed Black military figures and at the urging of friends has started displaying them at public events, where he shares information on Black military history.
“There is nothing like this anyplace else,” Williams said of his collection. “I hope seeing the display and hearing my talks will pique someone’s interest in this subject. I hope they will go on the Internet or get a book if only to confirm that what I said is correct.”
Williams and his wife, Deb, will host one of the learning stations at the Juneteenth Celebration June 20 at the Atlanta Cyclorama in Grant Park. As part of the city of Atlanta and the Atlanta History Center’s commemoration of the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War’s Battle of Atlanta, the organizations are holding an event that focuses on the war’s part in ending slavery.
Juneteenth commemorates the arrival of Major General Gordon Granger to Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, to deliver General Order Number 3 informing enslaved persons that they were free. The news reached these former slaves two and a half years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.
“We will present a day of fun and educational activities, including theatrical performances, a youth open mic experience, arts and crafts stations, and Civil War re-enactors,” Camille Russell Love, executive director of the city of Atlanta Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs, said in announcing the Juneteenth commemoration. There also will be genealogy workshops and children’s activities in connection with the event, which Love said “is in honor of all formerly enslaved African Americans.” The free event will be 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
During the Juneteenth event, admission will be free to the Atlanta Cyclorama & Civil War Museum, which opened in 1921. The circular 42-foot-by-358-foot painting–“cyclorama”–according to city officials is the world’s largest oil painting. It depicts the series of conflicts that encompass the Battle of Atlanta.
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