July 18, 1863: The Bravery of the 54th Massachusetts

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July 18, 1863: The Bravery of the 54th Massachusetts

When southern states began to secede from the Union in 1860, talk of civil war was prevalent throughout the country. For African Americans, this war was about one thing—bringing an end to slavery. Frederick Douglass and other prominent African Americans petitioned Congress and President Lincoln to allow African American men to enlist in the military. Douglass’ words and determination laid heavy in the mind of the President.

“A war undertaken and brazenly carried on for the perpetual enslavement of colored men, calls logically and loudly for colored men to help suppress it.  Only a moderate share of sagacity was needed to see that the arm of the slave was the best defense against the arm of the slaveholder.”

- Frederick Douglass, “Men of Color, To Arms!” March 21, 1863

Laying the Ground Work

The first step in recruiting African Americans was the Second Confiscation and Militia Act which gave Lincoln the authority “to employ as many persons of African descent as he may deem necessary and proper for the suppression of this rebellion…in such manner as he may judge best for the public welfare.” This act formed a number of unofficial African American regiments in Louisiana, Kansas and South Carolina. However, it wasn’t until the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on January 1, 1863 that official African American regiments formed.

Forming The 54th Massachusetts

On January 26, 1863, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton authorized the official recruitment and formation of African American regiments. Shortly after, Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew reached out to Boston’s African American and abolitionist communities to help with recruitment of soldiers to the Union Army. Excited by the news, these individuals worked tirelessly to recruit soldiers. Church sermons, public events, newspapers, posters and pamphlets were all used to promote recruitment. Frederick Douglass and Major Martin Robinson Delany also assisted with recruitment. Douglass’s two sons, Charles and Lewis, were some of the first to enlist.

Recruitment was so successful that over 1,000 men had volunteered by May 14, 1863. Volunteers came from all over the country, and even Canada and the Caribbean. This new regiment became the 54th Massachusetts, the second African American regiment of the United States Army. Roughly 25% of the volunteers were from southern states, many of them formerly enslaved.

Early Days

Trainings were done just outside of Boston at Camp Meigs, and the unit was commanded by Colonel Robert Shaw. Once training was complete, over 20,000 people (including Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison) gathered at Boston Commons on May 28, 1863 to send them off to active duty. The crowds cheered as the soldiers boarded the ship De Molay that was destined for South Carolina.

After weeks of manual labor and engaging in a small fight with Confederate troops on James Island, Colonel Shaw requested that his troops have the opportunity to lead the next assault against Confederate troops. When the 54th arrived outside of Fort Wagner, South Carolina on the evening of July 18, 1863, Colonel Shaw got his wish. That evening he told his men:

“I want you to prove yourselves… The eyes of thousands will look on what you do tonight.”

This was the moment they all had waited for. The opportunity to prove their valor—to fight for freedom.

View of Forts Wagner and Gregg on Morris Island, evacuated by Confederates, September 6, 1863. Source: Library of Congress

View of Forts Wagner and Gregg on Morris Island, evacuated by Confederates, September 6, 1863. Source: Library of Congress

The Assault at Fort Wagner

The 54th led the union assault. They advanced at dusk, bravely marching toward the Confederate line. When they got within 100 yards, Shaw gave the order to attack. Outgunned, the 54th was assaulted by a wall of bullets. Shaw witnessed the carnage and chaos, regrouped his men and led the charge over the outer wall of Ft. Wagner. Before the Colonel was shot and killed, his last words were, “Forward Fifty-Fourth!”

When the flag bearer was shot, Sergeant William H. Carney grabbed the flag before it could hit the ground. Despite suffering several serious gunshot wounds, Carney carried the symbol of the Union to the base of the fort where he planted the flag in the sand. Carney later told his fellow soldiers:

"As quick as a thought, I threw away my gun, seized the colors, and made my way to the head of the column."

His heroic efforts earned him the Medal of Honor—the first black recipient of the award in United States history.

 

Photograph of Sergeant William H. Carney, circa 1864. He was the first African American to receive the Medal of Honor.

Photograph of Sergeant William H. Carney, circa 1864. He was the first African American to receive the Medal of Honor.

Aftermath

Although the 54th fought valiantly, they were eventually repelled by Confederate troops and the union forces failed to take Ft. Wagner. Approximately 280 soldiers from the 54th were either killed, wounded, captured or missing. Some of captured men were sold into slavery. Yet despite the loss, the bravery shown by the 54th Massachusetts at the charge of Fort Wagner proved that African American troops were valuable, effective soldiers. This would be remembered as one of the most famous battles of the Civil War—inspiring artwork, poetry and songs for generations to come.

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James Harrington

Manager of Interpretive Services
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Ida B. Wells: A Legacy of Justice Deferred

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Ida B. Wells: A Legacy of Justice Deferred

Ida B. Wells-Barnett rose to prominence in the 1890s, bringing international attention to the lynching of Black Americans in the South. After three of her friends were lynched in 1892, Wells became one of the most vocal anti-lynching activists in history.

Calvin McDowell, Thomas Moss, and Henry Stewart owned a local grocery store in Memphis, TN known as the People’s Grocery. Their economic success angered the white owners of a store across the street. On March 9, a group of white men gathered to confront McDowell, Moss, and Stewart. During the scuffle that followed, several of the white men received injuries and authorities arrested the three black business owners. A white mob subsequently broke into the jail, captured McDowell, Moss, and Stewart, and lynched them.

Anti-Lynching Campaign

Incensed by the murder of her friends, Wells launched an extensive investigation into lynching. She published a pamphlet in 1892 titled Southern Horrors which detailed her findings. Her reporting highlighted the stories of lynching victims that challenged white authority or were able to successfully compete with whites in business or politics. As a result of her outspokenness, a mob destroyed her office at the local newspaper and threatened to kill her. She fled Memphis determined to continue her campaign to raise awareness about lynching. Wells took her efforts to England and established the British Anti-Lynching Society.

Following her tour in England, she returned to the U.S. and settled in Chicago, Illinois. In 1895, Wells married attorney and newspaper editor Ferdinand L. Barnett. Together, the couple had four children who Ida raised while balancing her activism for human rights.

Wells-Barnett gave one of her most significant speeches on lynching in January 1900. In this speech, she poignantly challenged America’s morality and tolerance for the degradation of black humanity.

“Our watchword has been 'the land of the free and the home of the brave.' Brave men do not gather by thousands to torture and murder a single individual, so gagged and bound he cannot make even feeble resistance or defense. Neither do brave men or women stand by and see such things done without compunction of conscience, nor read of them without protest. Our nation has been active and outspoken in its endeavors to right the wrongs of the Armenian Christian, the Russian Jew, the Irish Home Ruler, the native women of India, the Siberian exile, and the Cuban patriot. Surely it should be the nation’s duty to correct its own evils!”

Photo: The pamphlet "Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in all Its Phases"

Photo: The pamphlet "Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in all Its Phases"

Legacy

Ida also worked to advance other political causes. She helped launch the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1896 and was a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. She also actively campaigned for women’s suffrage, establishing the first Black women’s suffrage club in Chicago— the Alpha Suffrage Club. When Wells-Barnett travelled abroad, she often challenged white suffragists who refused to acknowledge lynching. As a result, she was often criticized by women’s suffrage organizations in the United States.

The Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill

In 1918, with pressure from Wells-Barnett, Congressman Leonidas Dyer of Missouri first introduced his anti-lynching bill—known as the Dyer Bill —into Congress. The NAACP supported the passage of this bill from 1919 onward. The Dyer Bill was passed by the House of Representatives on January 26, 1922 and given a favorable report by the Senate Committee in July 1922. Even so, its passage was halted by a filibuster in the Senate. Efforts to pass similar legislation were not taken up again until the 1930s with the Costigan-Wagner Bill. The Dyer Bill influenced the text of anti-lynching legislation promoted by the NAACP into the 1950s, including the Costigan-Wagner Bill.

Ida with her children, 1909

Ida with her children, 1909

If We Truly Value All Lives, Why Is This Still A Debate?

In 2020, animal cruelty is a federal crime. Yet the lynching of human beings as a federal crime is still a matter of debate among U.S. lawmakers today. The bill, called the Emmett Till Anti-lynching Act, was passed by the House in February 2020 by a vote of 410 to 4. It was backed by 99 Senators who urged for this change to address a crime that continues to terrorize Black Americans. However, in June 2020, the objections of a few influential lawmakers prevented the bill from becoming law.

It’s remarkable that lynching, which has a horrific legacy of targeted abuse and trauma toward Black Americans, is not yet considered a federal crime. History reveals that the divisions that continue to exist in this nation have long been centered on the inequitable treatment of Black Americans. Our laws are tied to this social construct of race, and I feel that’s why we see efforts to suppress meaningful changes to the law when it comes to matters of racial violence and justice—the same meaningful changes that Ida B. Wells-Barnett crusaded for over 100 years ago. Because of our inability as Americans to acknowledge and correct our painful history, it is my argument that her legacy remains deferred today.

Honor Ida B. Wells Today

Do you think Congress should pass the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act? Become a part of the conversation by adding your name to the Change.org petition urging Congress to pass the Anti-Lynching bill now. You can find the petition here: https://www.change.org/p/rand-paul-pass-the-anti-lynching-bill-now

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Christopher Miller

Senior Director of Education & Community Engagement
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Singing an Anthem is Not Enough

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Singing an Anthem is Not Enough

There has been a mixed response to the NFL’s recent announcement to have Lift Every Voice and Sing performed before every week 1 kickoff. It’s my opinion that performing this anthem at sporting events is a nice symbolic gesture, but it does not actively dismantle any of the structural racism that permeates nearly every sector of our society. The recent uprisings across the country are a direct response to continued systemic inequity, abuse and violence enabled by racist ideologies and policies. Deep-rooted changes are required for genuine progress.

In learning from authentic accounts, as opposed to tales of nostalgia, it’s critical for us to unpack the social need and desire for anthems. The Star-Spangled Banner has only been the national anthem for 89 years, while Lift Every Voice and Sing has been an anthem embraced by people of color for at least 111 years. Very few Americans are aware of this reality.

The Star Spangled Banner

In 1814, Francis Scott Key wrote a poem that would become the lyrics to The Star-Spangled Banner. Key’s poem reflected his account of the War of 1812. While the first verse of The Star-Spangled Banner is most widely known, the last three verses are generally omitted from the American consciousness. This is largely due to fact that the other verses could be interpreted as supporting slavery and white supremacy.

In 1916, a year before the U.S. entered World War I, President Woodrow Wilson signed an executive order designating The Star-Spangled Banner as the national anthem. It was sung publicly for the first time at the 1918 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs. It’s important to note that this moment happened in the midst of World War I, when there was a need to boost the morale of America’s mainstream with a unifying anthem.

The US Congress did not confirm the executive order to adopt The Star-Spangled Banner until 1931 during the Great Depression. Timing is everything. Once again, the argument could be made that this gesture was intended to boost the nation’s morale in a turbulent moment.

Knowing this history, we must ask ourselves this question today—how can Black Americans embrace an anthem tied to an exclusionary perspective of freedom?

Image: Portrait of James Weldon Johnson

Image: Portrait of James Weldon Johnson

Lift Every Voice and Sing

In comparison, the anthem Lift Every Voice and Sing holds a tone and tenor of universality and inclusion. James Weldon Johnson, an influential novelist, poet, composer, educator, diplomat, lawyer, social critic, and civil rights activist, wrote the lyrics to Lift Every Voice and Sing in 1900. Like The Star-Spangled Banner, it was initially a poem. It served as a tribute to the endurance, persistence, and restless hope for justice and equity in America.

The Story of Juneteenth

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The Story of Juneteenth

Major General Gordon Granger and 1,800 Union troops landed in Galveston, Texas on June 18, 1865. The next day, June 19, 1865, he issued General Orders, No. 3, declaring that the last remaining enslaved people in the United States were finally free.

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

—General Orders, No. 3; Headquarters District of Texas, Galveston, June 19, 1865

Why was it needed?

You may be asking yourself, “Why was this order necessary?” After all, the Emancipation Proclamation that declared “all persons held as slaves are, and henceforward shall be free” was issued more than two years before on January 1, 1863. The United States Congress had also already passed the 13th Amendment to end slavery nearly 6 months before on January 31, 1865. And General Robert E. Lee had already surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865, marking the end of the Civil War.

There are a few reasons: (1) The Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free all enslaved people, (2) the United States had no means to enforce the 13th Amendment, and (3) because of Texas’ remote location, slave owners were able to maintain and enforce slavery after Lee’s surrender due to the minimal number of Union troops available to enforce emancipation.

A day to celebrate

General Orders, No. 3 solidified emancipation in the United States and made way for 250,000 people still enslaved to finally gain their freedom. June 19, 1865 offered a first to African Americans—a definitive date when freedom was gained.

Imagine you and your family had suffered through 10 generations of enslavement, and experienced the trauma of watching family members being sold away from each other. Imagine punishments so severe, they nearly ended your life. Imagine being reminded every day you’re nothing but property, and constantly feeling the desire for freedom. Now, imagine the day freedom finally comes for you and your family. What would that day mean to you?  Would you remember that date?  Would you cherish and celebrate that date for generations to come? Would you use that date to continue the fight for inclusive freedom? This is what Juneteenth means to millions of African Americans across this country.

Texas Juneteenth Day Celebration, 1900. Credit: Austin History Center.

Texas Juneteenth Day Celebration, 1900. Credit: Austin History Center.

Juneteenth traditions

From 1865 forward, African Americans gathered in Texas every year to honor and celebrate their freedom. These celebrations evolved into what is known today as Juneteenth, but were also referred to as 'Jubilee Day' and 'Emancipation Day' early on. African Americans were prohibited from using public spaces to celebrate Juneteenth, so they collected money to purchase land to carry on the tradition. Emancipation Park in Houston, Texas was purchased for this purpose in 1872 for $1,000.

Outdoor activities, dressing up and shared food were the three main elements of Juneteenth celebrations. Rodeos, fishing, baseball, prayer services, singing, dancing, and reciting the Emancipation Proclamation were all common activities. Guests often dressed in their finest clothing for the occasion and everyone brought food to share with others. The barbeque pit became one of the most important aspects of the day.

“More traditional and just as popular was the barbecuing, through which Juneteenth participants could share in the spirit and aromas that their ancestors—the newly emancipated African Americans, would have experienced during their ceremonies.”

–Excerpt from Juneteenth.com

Juneteenth today

Juneteenth became more than just a celebration of freedom. It became a way for families to reunite; a way for African Americans to organize politically, economically and spiritually; a way to educate and inspire future generation to come; and a way to show their pride, strength and resolve.

“Juneteenth today, celebrates African American freedom and achievement, while encouraging continuous self-development and respect for all cultures.”

-Juneteenth.com

From its humble beginnings in Texas, Juneteenth is now celebrated in cities and towns throughout the country.  Millions of Americans gather to experience this celebration.  In 1979, Texas became the first state to make Juneteenth a state holiday. Today, 41 states either recognize or observe Juneteenth as a state holiday.

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James Harrington

Manager of Interpretive Services
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

10 Steps You Can Take to Fight for Inclusive Freedom Today

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10 Steps You Can Take to Fight for Inclusive Freedom Today

In the wake of the death of George Floyd, many across the country are looking for ways to get involved. We at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center believe in equity and justice, and encourage everyone to take action in the fight for inclusive freedom. There are many ways to do this, but here are 10 recommendations:

1. Fight against racism and bias by understanding the biases you possess.

We are all influenced by implicit bias—zero in on your own blind spots by taking the Implicit Association Test. Find it here: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html

2. Learn about the complicated history of racism in America.

A great place to start is this list: A History of Race and Racism in America, in 24 Chapters, created by the National Book Award-winning-author and professor Ibram X. Kendi. Kendi compiled this list for The New York Times Book Review, highlighting influential works about the black experience for each decade of the nation’s existence including the poems of Phillis Wheatley and Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-winning novel Beloved.

3. Combat racial inequality by supporting Black-Owned businesses in your city, state, or online.

In fact, if you are looking to buy some books to help you gain knowledge, check out this list of 12 Black-Owned Bookstores You Can Support Right Now.

4. Not a reader? Watch documentaries, tv shows and films to learn more about racial injustices.

Here is a great list: 11 Shows and Documentaries to Help You Learn About Racial Justice and Police Brutality.

5. Learn how to become an ‘Upstander,’ with the Nancy & David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center.

An upstander is a person who speaks or acts in support of an individual or cause, particularly someone who intervenes on behalf of a person being attacked or bullied. We can all be upstanders if we use our unique talents and characteristics in positive ways. In this time of crisis, take the museum’s VIA Character Strengths survey to determine what your top character strengths are and how you can leverage them to address challenges and make a difference. CLICK HERE to take the survey.

6. If you are able, protest.

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center supports the right to protest, as it has historically proven to be the best means of communication for oppressed people. Read our full statement here.

7. Are podcasts your preferred way to absorb information? Listen to a podcast dedicated to discussing issues of racism and inequality.

Check out this list of 24 Podcasts That Confront Racism in America.

8. Sign petitions demanding change for racial violence.

For example, find the change.org petition Justice for Breonna Taylor here.

9. Urge your city, state and/or county officials to adopt recommendations for policing equity and accountability by writing letters and calling your local offices.

If you live in Cincinnati, here is a list of recommendations put together by the Cincinnati Black United Front and the Ohio Justice and Policy Center: http://www.ohiojpc.org/protests-pandemic-recommendations-equitable-cincinnati/

10. If you are able, donate to organizations fighting against social injustice on the front lines.

Here is a list of organizations from around the country: https://blavity.com/heres-a-list-of-black-organizations-you-can-donate-to-for-bailouts-and-other-protest-efforts?category1=news.

And finally, whatever you choose to do in this difficult time—do so with empathy and passion.

Special thanks to the Nancy & David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center and the Ohio Justice and Policy Center for their contributions to this post.

OPINION: Reconstruction Failed in the United States. What If It Had Succeeded?

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OPINION: Reconstruction Failed in the United States. What If It Had Succeeded?

As a white public historian who has spent years trying to understand what makes people hate, there is one thing I always go back to: what if Reconstruction succeeded in the United States?

In light of the events that have unfolded over this past weekend, I find myself wondering now more than ever, what would have happened if Reconstruction didn’t fail? Or, I should say, if the United States did not fail African Americans? If Reconstruction succeeded, if African Americans were granted rights deserved to them as human beings, if the United States would have held up their end of the bargain—would we still experience racial violence at the alarming numbers we do today? Would, in the midst of a global pandemic, we still turn on the TV and see yet another unarmed African American killed at the hands of the police?

Many Americans are taught in grade school that the Union Army won the Civil War and President Abraham Lincoln ended slavery. For most of us, that is where the story ended. We learned little to nothing about the Reconstruction Amendments, the Freedman’s Bureau, and the racial violence that plagued the country for nearly 100 years following the Civil War.

For many of us, the reason the story ends there is because America is still uncomfortable with its past, and that includes discussing Reconstruction. We’re uncomfortable admitting that although we passed the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery, it still allowed for forced incarcerated labor that still exists in the country today. We’re uncomfortable admitting that although we passed the 14th amendment granting citizenship to formerly enslaved African Americans, incidents like the Wilmington, NC massacre of 1898 occurred as a reassertion of white power in the South. We’re uncomfortable admitting that although we passed the 15th amendment granting African American men the right to vote, no state in the South allowed this to occur in practice until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, nearly 95 years later.

There are many reasons why Reconstruction (1865-1877) was arguably unsuccessful in the United States. For example, President Andrew Johnson believed in states’ rights and allowed many southern states to govern themselves after the Civil War—essentially putting the slave-owning Democratic Party back in control.

Print titled "Andrew Johnson's reconstruction and how it works." In reference to Shakespeare’s 'Othello,' an African American Civil War veteran represents Othello, while Andrew Johnson is portrayed as the deceitful Iago who betrays him. Source: Library of Congress.

Print titled "Andrew Johnson's reconstruction and how it works." In reference to Shakespeare’s 'Othello,' an African American Civil War veteran represents Othello, while Andrew Johnson is portrayed as the deceitful Iago who betrays him. Source: Library of Congress.

There was also the failure of “Radical Reconstruction,” (1867-1872) a strategy developed by the Republican Party of the North aimed to fully integrate African Americans into political life throughout the South. At the time, the strategy was referred to as being “radical” (as was the Republican Party who created it) due to its underlying principle belief that African Americans deserved equal rights in the United States. During Radical Reconstruction, Southern states were required to ratify the 14th and 15th Amendments before they could rejoin the Union. By 1870, all former Confederate States had returned to the Union while enacting some of the most progressive policies the region had seen in its history. This included allowing the participation of African Americans in democracy such as elections to state governments and the U.S. Congress. However, by 1867 many southern states began to push back and responded by forming white supremacy organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan to enact racial terror and intimidation. As the 1870s continued, support for reconstruction throughout the country began to wane. The combination of white intimidation, a significant economic depression in the South, and the Democratic Party winning control of the House of Representatives in 1874, resulted in Reconstruction beginning to fade away. It officially ended with the Compromise of 1876 and the removal of federal troops throughout the South.

It is my argument that Reconstruction failed in the United States and that more importantly, the United States failed African Americans. I believe this failure led to a legacy of oppression and racial violence still felt in the streets of America today, causing me to ask myself yet again: if Reconstruction, and more specifically Radical Reconstruction, would have succeeded—would America be different? If those who incited rebellion against the United States would have been punished accordingly; if reparations were recognized and honored—allowing opportunities such as land for formerly enslaved African Americans and the right to an equal education; if monuments glorifying war criminals and white supremacy were not allowed to be placed on pedestals throughout the South; if symbols of hate were destroyed and forbid for being displayed ever again in the United States—would we in 2020 still see examples of the very same institutionalized racism present in the Black Codes of Reconstruction?

History is complicated and uncomfortable, but it is important. I don’t have the answers on to how to reverse years of revisionist history, generational trauma, and white supremacy. However, I can offer some suggestions on how to move forward. Take some time to learn about our history—us as Americans—in a way you may not have before. Unfamiliar with Reconstruction, Jim Crow, or the Civil Rights era? Add some books to your summer reading list to help supplement knowledge (this article, titled “Understanding and Dismantling Racism: A Booklist for White Readers” is a great place to start). Have children that you want to introduce these topics to? Explore our Online Learning Resources, targeted for various grade levels. But above all—push yourself to learn if you are unfamiliar, and then urge others in your circle to do the same.

And lastly, when we reopen—we encourage you to visit our museum. We’ll be here to help you navigate this uncomfortable history in order to gain tools to help fight for an inclusive future.

Katie Bramell

Director of Museum Experiences
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Heroes of the American Red Cross

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Heroes of the American Red Cross

In honor of the 139th anniversary of the founding of the Red Cross, I would like to focus this week’s post on the contributions of women to the medical field. Throughout history, women serve as the moral backbone of many social movements in the United States, from both the abolitionist and suffrage movements of the 19th century to the Black Lives Matter and Me Too platforms of today.

The medical field is no exception. The history of the American Red Cross is an inspirational example of women’s contributions to humanity. Their courage, cooperation and perseverance propelled the Red Cross to become one of the most impactful humanitarian organizations in the world.

Clara Barton (1821-1912) founded the American Red Cross in 1881 and was president of the organization until 1904. During the Civil War, like many women she had a deep desire to help the wounded and dying soldiers who were fighting on the battlefields. As a nurse for the Union Army, she risked her life daily to help thousands of men suffering through the trauma of war. This included bringing supplies and support to the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, the all-African American regiment recruited by Frederick Douglass. Her compassion and dedication during this turbulent time earned her the nickname “Angel of the Battlefield.”

Clara Barton (1821-1912)

Clara Barton (1821-1912)

Following the Civil War, Barton wanted to continue to help the wounded and dying around the world on a “neutral basis.” To accomplish her goal, she sought advice from friends. After working closely together during the Civil War, Frederick Douglass and Barton formed a close friendship that aided Barton in creating the American Red Cross. Douglass offered Barton helpful advice on how to become a member of the global Red Cross network. While serving as Register of Deeds for the District of Columbia, he signed the original Articles of Incorporation for the American Red Cross—the documents that would legally and officially create the American Red Cross.

Women of color played a major role in the success of the organization as well. Frances Reed Elliott Davis (1883-1965) was the first African American registered nurse in the American Red Cross. Her journey began at the Freedman’s School of Nursing in Washington D.C., where she became the first African American in D.C. to pass the board exam. She helped the family members of WWI soldiers in Chattanooga, TN, and became the director of nurses training at Tuskegee Institute’s John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital.

Frances Reed Elliott Davis (1883-1965)

Frances Reed Elliott Davis (1883-1965)

Ruth Hills Wadsworth (1886-1973) was the first Native American nurse to help allied soldiers in France during WWI. She began her nursing career in El Paso in 1908 at the Hotel Dieu School of Nursing. Following a stint as a private nurse, she decided to join the American Red Cross to help those in war torn Europe. Besides helping the soldiers and doctors in the medical camps, she also spent a considerable amount of time helping women and children traumatized by war. After the war, she moved onto the Mescalero Apache reservation where she dedicated her time to helping the Apache people.

Since its inception, women in the American Red Cross have helped millions of people throughout the world. Today, they serve in every area of the organization. Like the female abolitionists and conductors that came before them, these women continue to display the courage, cooperation and perseverance it takes to make the world a better place for all of us.

James Harrington

Manager of Interpretive Services
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Memories at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

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Memories at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

For today’s #MuseumWeek2020 hashtag #MuseumMomentsMW, I thought I’d share some of my favorite museum memories. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center opened in August 2004. I came in October that year to volunteer for ONE weekend and am still here 15 years later!

As part of our Education team, I’ve spent many years interacting with groups of our children through school tours, outreach visits to classrooms and as a costumed interpreter. I enjoy thinking back on the impact we’ve made by teaching them about American history. The most rewarding part is to watch their faces light up at the stories we share, especially when they recognize names of people, places or things in the story. I love to hear them ask questions, chime in, and share what they have learned during our time together. I’m always moved by their profound statements like “Where did America go wrong?” or “Why did they treat people like that?” or “When I grow up, I want to…” They are a bright spot in what we do.

There are so many stories that I could share from my time with the museum. From the incredible staff trips we took to historical sites around the country (Charleston, SC; Richmond, VA; Memphis, TN; Atlanta, GA and Selma, AL just to name a few) to seeing or meeting the many famous celebrity guests who have visited over the years... First Lady Michelle Obama, Andrew Young, and Susan Taylor have all walked our halls. One of my favorite performers, Lionel Richie, came once and I was starstruck. We also had the chance to host Ms. Angelia Davis, Ms. Nikki Giovanni and MC Lyte. I’m blown away remembering all I’ve seen and the people I’ve met since joining the team in 2004.

But by far, the best memories I have come from the bonds built with an amazing group of coworkers, docents and volunteers who have all rallied around our common purpose. Each year has brought new faces, gifts, and laughs to our Freedom Center family. We’ve also shed a few tears sending off talented colleagues, interns, and volunteers to make their mark on the world. Saying goodbye is difficult, but each time we make sure they know they have been a valuable part of our story.

Novella wearing one of many costumes

Novella wearing one of many costumes

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Many of my photos have been lost, but I did salvage a few that capture just small of portion of my favorite #MuseumMoments at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center—scroll down to take a look.

I’ve had a lot of memories here in 15 years, can’t wait to have many more. Did my post remind you of any special memories at the Freedom Center (or any other museum that you’ve visited)? Recognize anyone in my photos? Let us know—we’d love to hear from you!

Novella Nimmo

Education Coordinator
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Getting dressed for “Our Foremothers”

Getting dressed for “Our Foremothers”

Bengals Football Team and Novella Nimmo

Bengals Football Team and Novella Nimmo

In honor of Jacqueline Wallace

In honor of Jacqueline Wallace

In honor of Jacqueline Wallace

Left to right: Linda Wesseler, Pam Dock, Julie Gore, Novella Nimmo, Verneida Britton, Keili Ferguson, Edna Keown and Jyreika Gues

Angelia Davis and Donna Thomas

Angelia Davis and Donna Thomas

Civil Rights Leader Marian Spencer

Civil Rights Leader Marian Spencer

First Lady Michelle Obama

First Lady Michelle Obama

Volunteer Appreciation Month

Volunteer Appreciation Month

Every Child Succeeds

Every Child Succeeds

The Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793

Freedom Center Voices
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The Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793

When news of COVID-19 began to sweep the country, it got me thinking about the past outbreaks in United States history. The first that came to mind was the 1793 yellow fever epidemic that gripped our then-largest American city and nation’s capital—Philadelphia, PA.

At the time, yellow fever was known as ‘American plague.’ Catching this disease was serious and caused the afflicted a lot of suffering before they ultimately died. We now know that this highly infectious virus is carried and transferred by mosquitoes, but this fact wasn’t discovered until much later in 1881. The unknown caused fear and panic to tear through the city. It had struck our shores before, but this was the worst wave of yellow fever in American history.

As the disease spread, Dr. Benjamin Rush and Dr. James Hutchinson warned Mayor Matthew Clarkson of the possibility of an epidemic. The Mayor met with other doctors, government officials and citizens to find the best course of action to fight the disease.

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As the death toll climbed and thousands fled the city in fear, Dr. Rush wrote a letter to a local newspaper insinuating the idea that African Americans were somehow immune to yellow fever.  The newspaper then wrote an article pleading with free African Americans to help with the sick. Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, two of Philadelphia’s most prominent African Americans at the time, met with members of the Free African Society and decided to offer assistance to the citizens of Philadelphia.

“Early in September, a solicitation appeared in the public papers, to the people of colour to come forward and assist the distressed, perishing, and neglected sick; with a kind of assurance, that people of our colour were not liable to take the infection. Upon which we and a few others met and consulted how to act on so truly alarming and melancholy occasion. After some conversation, we found a freedom to go forth, confiding in Him who can preserve in the midst of a burning fiery furnace, sensible that it was our duty to do all the good we could to our suffering fellow mortals.”

- Richard Allen and Absalom Jones

African American women nursed the sick and dying, while African American men mainly tended to transporting the sick and burying the dead. These heroic individuals, who were denied citizenship after the American Revolution and treated as inferior, risked their lives to help save the very people who oppressed them. In the end, the yellow fever outbreak claimed thousands of lives including approximately 240 African Americans.

In a time when black communities are being disproportionately affected by Covid-19 in the United States, it seems more important than ever to remember the story of these heroes who once rose to the occasion, risked themselves to work the front lines, and saved lives. That work continues today, and we are grateful.

James Harrington

Manager of Interpretive Services
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Remembering Healers and Herbal Remedies

Freedom Center Voices
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Remembering Healers and Herbal Remedies

This week I would like to honor healers, women that brought the tradition of herbal healing to America from Africa using plants, roots, bark and animals to make medicine. Enslavement brought a lot of healers from Africa. If they came across plants they didn't know, they learned about them from either Native Americans or by trial and error. There was always a healer around that could help ease the pain and suffering of both the enslaved and the free.

In one of my previous blog posts, I shared that Susie King Taylor was a healer who used knowledge passed down from her grandmother. In that post I only mention Sassafras as a blood purifier, but it was also used for joint pain. Below is a list of some of the herbs used by enslaved people, partly because many of them distrusted man-made medicines. Everything listed here was either boiled into tea or made into a paste to dress wounds:

  • Pennyroyal – Pain reliever, also used to relieve the pain of childbirth (Don’t know of any medicine that can do that…)
  • Snakeroot – Purified the body (Horrible taste. Completely cleaned out the internal system, so you would need to stay close to the bathroom…)
  • Rat Vein – Treating colic babies (Smelled bad. Since there were no bottles, a rag was soaked and baby watch closely so they wouldn’t choke on it)
  • Wild Cherry Bark – Fever reducer
  • Sage – Soothed a sore throat
  • Horehound – Cold treatment (Found in some cough syrups today)

That was the 1800s, but how about the 1900s? This reminds me of some of the home remedies that were given to me as a young child in Virginia:

  • Cod-liver oil – Given for colds. Mixed w/honey and a side of orange slices to cover the bad taste (it didn’t help)
  • Castor Oil – For general sickness
  • Lye soap – Shaved and mixed in warm water to use as an enema
  • Wet Tobacco – For bee stings
  • Condensed milk & stale bread – Skin infection (I was told this would bring boils instead of illness)
  • Father John – I don’t know what was in it, but it tasted worse than cod liver oil or castor oil
  • Garlic – Cold, whooping cough, foot pain, corns
  • Vinegar – Helped lower blood pressure
  • Fat back (fat from the back of a pig) – used to prevent gangrene from stepping on rusty nails and glass injuries (country living, we walked bare footed a lot…)

There were also herbs my grandmother and aunts used on us as children and we had no idea what they were. We were told “to take it or else,” so that’s what we did. Nobody wanted to find out what “or else” meant. Some common meds like Vicks Vapor Rub made a difference with fever. It was placed under my nose and rubbed on my chest and back. I was also given a little bit of it to eat, then wrapped in a hot towel to make me sweat. I did feel better the next morning.

As we laugh and ponder the different remedies that have been used for healing, I would like to thank and honor those that kept us here.  We have come a long way with medical treatment, and we thank all those today that stand on the front line, treating COVID-19, while we wait on a cure.

Now it’s your turn, let’s keep this rolling  If you can remember any home remedies not listed above, we’d love to hear from you. If none come to mind, maybe give someone older in your life a call and ask them. Let us know where they grew up. I am sure there were a lot of home remedies out there and I just scratched the surface.

Novella Nimmo

Education Coordinator
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center