35 years of MARTA History

Stone Mountain couple to host learning station at Juneteenth celebration

Rob and Deb Williams frequently participate in events to educate the public on the role of Black Americans in military history.at recent exhibit

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 [1989] 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.”

Uniformed figures in Rob Williams’ collection illustrate Black participation in America’s wars.

Uniformed figures in Rob Williams’ collection illustrate Black participation in America’s wars.

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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4 Comments

  1. John Moses says:

    Bob,
    enjoyed reading your article. It should enlighten many people on the role that our people played in the Civil War and the two black men who played key roles in the Revolutionary
    War- Crispus Attucks and Peter Salem.. We wiil visit tomorrow.

  2. Great article! I saw this exhibit personally on several occasions. As a former educator, I know exhibits like The Sable Arm with so much information and presented in a this format is exactly what our young people would respond positively to. It need to go on tour to all schools history classes. I wish Rob and Deb Williams the greatest success on such a worthy and honorable venture!

  3. Oliver West Jr says:

    Bob and Deb

    This is an absolute awesome program that you have developed. I certainly encourage you to make the display and your presentation as widely available as possible. Many of our young people and also many adults would benefit from exposure to your program. I thank you for allowing this to be shared.

  4. HENRY PUGH says:

    That is great Rob and Deb, you shoul tour with stories of different battles all over the country including John Brown and the part Harriet Tubman played in the war.
    Keep it up,
    Henry

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