History

The United States Colored Troops

April 5, 2020 8:00 PM EST

Kayla Key

The African American Civil War Museum and the USCT

Anthropologist Johnny Coleman has dedicated his life to filling the gaps of African American history he says classroom textbooks purposely left out. His most recent work highlights the lives of the United States Colored Troops.

Georgetown University’s Kayla Key visited the African American War Museum in Washington, DC and has the story. 

 

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KEY: If you’ve ever visited the Shaw neighborhood in Washington, DC, you’ve probably walked past the African American Civil War Museum. And if you find yourself getting off the yellow or green line metro, you've stood directly across the street from the museum.

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KEY: The museum sits behind the Grimke School, named after highly regarded race and community leader, Archibald Grimke.

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KEY: As you walk through the black and gold gate that reads 'African American Civil War Museum,' you see five portraits of black soldiers hanging along the wall.

KEY: After just a short walk back in time, you're met with the museum doors.

JOHNNY COLEMAN: Hey! (KK): Hello / JC: Good morning / KK: Good morning / JC: How are you doing? I don’t know if you’ve met everybody… DIP UNDER NARRATION

KEY: Johnny Coleman is a tall, soft-spoken African American man who is passionate about the study of human societies and cultures, and their development.

COLEMAN: Um yes, I’m Johnny Coleman Jr. I'm a tour guide. Anthropologist, trained as an anthropologist, graduate of Howard University class of 2002. I actually do tours here in the Shaw community, and the heart of my tours is the African American Civil War Memorial.

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Welcome to the African American Civil War Museum in Washington DC. The parent organization of the African American Civil War Museum is the African American Civil War freedom foundation incorporated in 1992.

KEY: Coleman says the museum was founded in 2004 for two reasons; to aid in the economic revitalization of the historic U Street after the 1968 riots, and to correct the history that ignored the service of the United States Colored Troops.

COLEMAN: And that they will not disappear. They have not been discussed for over 100 years in our textbooks and classrooms on intentional purpose. 

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KEY: Most of the museum consists of text, illustrations, and maps displayed on wall panels shaped like books. Visitors are able to truly step back in time to the Civil War after seeing the various artifacts around every corner. 

KEY: Marquett Milton is a colored troops reenactor at the museum and recalls the first time he met Johnny Coleman.

MILTON: Yeah, this small word. We had the same teacher, and then we started connecting.

KEY: Milton is dressed in brogan shoes, wool socks and trousers, a sack coat, core badge, cap box, bullet holder and is accompanied by a bayonet.

KK: Are you usually in uniform? / MM: Yeah. Tuesday to Saturday from 10 to 4. To be honest, this museum, it put me like on a spiritual journey. / KK: Oh yeah? / MM: Yeah.

KEY: Milton explained how much he and Coleman had in common, and the importance of their friendship.

MILTON: The thing we talked about, it seemed like we're the same mission, so we were like let's partner because normally people of African descent don't stick together. So, he was like, we need to stick together to create something.

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My grandfather said that, uh, he being the youngest there, he was the...‘Youngblood’ they called him...

MILTON: So, there’s a lot of people in history that I believe that we should do our research and memorialize them, you know, so they can be mentioned forever. You know. Because a lot of people put a lot of energy into make a difference in this world. Everybody have a purpose.

 

KEY: Coleman said that as a kid, he visited a museum, and saw people giving tours. It was that experience that inspired him to become an anthropologist. 

COLEMAN: And I asked them, ‘What are you doing?’ And they told me, and I didn't understand hardly anything. They said, I wrote down the words, and that's how it started.

KEY: Coleman says that most Americans don’t know about the Colored Troops.

COLEMAN: Most Americans don't know about the United States Colored Troops. I've met more people from other countries who know. Really, yeah, because of the capturing of Richmond by the United States culture, which was international news.

KEY: Author, professor and historian, Jesse Holland, explained the impact of the African American Civil War Museum.

HOLLAND: A lot of people look at the Civil War and say, whites freed blacks, as if African Americans just sat back and did nothing. This museum directly contradicts that theory that that shows that African Americans fought for their own freedom. And which is an important thing to know, which makes that museum very important.

KEY: For Coleman, knowing about the United States Colored Troops has been the most rewarding part of his job.

COLEMAN:...and then overall, the benefit for me is, is the knowledge. Yeah, it’s changed my perspective of life.

KEY: From Georgetown University, I’m Kayla Key.