KING GEORGE, Va. – Dr. Frank Smith – civil rights activist, historian, politician, museum founder, and keynote speaker at Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division’s 2018 African American and Black History Month Observance – recounted President Dwight Eisenhower’s response in 1957 to the Arkansas governor who ordered state National Guard troops to surround a school and prevent African American students from attending classes.
Governor Orval Faubus, defying the U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous 1954 ruling that racial segregation in educational facilities was unconstitutional, had repeatedly tried to thwart the Little Rock school board’s integration plan.
Smith told the Dahlgren audience of military, government civilian, and defense contractor personnel that, “President Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne to the schoolhouse in Arkansas, and sent a letter to the governor warning him that ‘If this is the Civil War all over again, you will have to fight my best Army.’”
Three weeks later, the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division escorted nine black students into the all-white Central High School to begin the school year.
This was one of many stories that Smith – founder and director of the African American Civil War Museum in Washington, D.C. – drew from the struggle for civil rights to illustrate a quote he selected from Dr. Martin Luther King, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Smith’s talk primarily focused on this year's theme, "African Americans in Times of War," to recognize the major contributions African Americans made serving our nation in all its conflicts from the Revolutionary War to the present-day despite all injustices.
Speaking about African American service members, Smith said, “Many led protests in the community when they came home from the military – and many were killed,” citing fellow civil rights leader Medgar Evans as an example.
“Medgar Evers was with me in Mississippi,” said Smith at the Feb. 14 observance held at the University of Mary Washington Dahlgren Campus. “I saw him a couple days before he was killed getting out of his car when he came home from a civil rights rally.”
Evers’ wife and three children, who had just watched an important civil rights speech by President John F. Kennedy, heard the shot and quickly came outside. The murder of Evers was a terrible loss to his family, the community, and the nation. He was a devoted husband and father, a distinguished World War II veteran, and a pioneering civil rights leader. He served as the NAACP’s first field secretary in Mississippi—organizing protests and voter registration drives, recruiting new workers into the civil rights movement, and pushing for school integration. His death in 1963 was not in vain. The brutal, senseless murder helped galvanize the nation’s march towards equality and justice.
“America has changed, it’s a better place now,” said Smith. “It’s a better place for all of us, and for those of you who serve in the military, who have represented this country all around the world, you can talk more proudly about this being the land of the free and the home of the brave because you know now that all of us have the same skin in this game. We’re all working hard to make this a better place – we’re all in this together.”
The civil rights activist – later to become a Washington, D.C., councilman – is most recognized as the first person associated with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who registered voters in Mississippi.
“All of those protests have come to mean a lot to me, and I tell the story to my grandkids all the time,” said Smith, pointing out that in 1950, there were only 75,000 African Americans enrolled in college in the United States. “By the time Pres. Obama ran for office in 2008, there were 2.5 million black people enrolled in college. Now, there are only 230,000 seats in all the historically black colleges combined. That means, there are more than 2.25 million African Americans going to college in places where they could not have gone to college before the civil rights movement in the 1960s.”
Smith also shared statistics on voter registration since the 1960s.
“When I first got to Mississippi in 1968, there were about 5,000 African Americans registered to vote,” Smith recounted. “By the time I left, there were about 100,000 registered to vote in Mississippi.”
At one point, federal registrars arrived to register voters in Mississsippi. “That’s why I left and came to Washington D.C.,” said Smith. “Once I realized that people in D.C. were not registered to vote, we had another fight on our hands. I eventually got elected to the council.”
Smith was elected to the Washington D.C. Board of Education in 1979, and subsequently to the Council of the District of Columbia in 1982, where he served for 16 years. His work focused on housing and economic development. While on the Council, he served as chair of the Housing and Economic Development Committee, the Metropolitan Washington Area Transportation Authority, and the Baseball Commission.
Smith’s lifelong dream to honor African Americans who fought for freedom as U.S. Colored Troops was realized as he oversaw the dedication of the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum in July 1998.
After leaving the City Council in January 1999, Smith opened the African American Civil War Museum, which attracts more than 200,000 visitors per year. He used a lifetime of leadership experience to secure financing; Washington, D.C. support; and the active involvement of public and private agencies to establish the memorial and museum.
“We built a monument to 209,145 African Americans who served in the Civil War,” said Smith. “Their names are engraved on stainless steel plaques on the national monument. In front of their names is a bronze statue – three soldiers and one sailor are depicted on it. There were 25,000 sailors who served in the Union Navy during the Civil War.”
The memorial centers around the ‘The Spirit of Freedom,’ a nine-foot bronze sculpture by Ed Hamilton, an African-American artist. The front side of the sculpture depicts three rifle-wielding Soldiers and one Sailor at the helm of a ship. The reverse side features a scene of a black family sending a son off to war.
Surrounding the sculpture, a curved, stainless-steel Wall of Honor bears the names of the members of the United States Colored Troops arranged by regiment, along with the names of the unsegregated Navy sailors who served in the Civil War.
The museum features a series of exhibits tracing the history of African-American military service, centering on the Civil War, but stretching from the arrival of African slaves in the 1600s, through the two world wars, to the present.
Smith mentioned the relationship and a meeting between President Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass – the most prominent black man in the United States. Douglass consistently petitioned Lincoln to make emancipation an explicit war aim and to sanction the raising of colored regiments. Two of his sons served in the 54th Massachusetts regiment, the first to be composed of African-American soldiers.
“At the end of the War in 1865, President Lincoln spoke with Frederick Douglass about war terms, including the right to vote,” said Smith, adding that the “15th Amendment is a crucial amendment.”
The 15th Amendment to the Constitution granted African American men the right to vote by declaring that the "right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude."
After watching his life’s work ratified with the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution, Douglass held various government posts and continued to work through the period of Reconstruction and beyond to secure civil rights for African Americans. “Verily, the work does not end with the abolition of slavery, but only begins,” Douglass once remarked.
Eighteen African Americans won the Medal of Honor for their service in the Civil War, said Smith, adding that many went home as war heroes and were elected to public office.
Moreover, Smith spoke about the military and political career of escaped slave, Civil War hero and Medal of Honor winner, Robert Smalls, who served five terms as a congressman from South Carolina.
During the Civil War, the Confederate Army conscripted Smalls into service aboard the Planter, an ammunitions transport ship that had once been a cotton steamer. On May 13, 1862, a black crew captained by Smalls hijacked the well-stocked ship and turned it over to the Union Navy. Smalls became a northern celebrity and his escape was symbolic of the Union cause. The publication of his name and former enslaved status in northern propaganda proved demoralizing for the South.
Smalls spent the remainder of the war balancing his role as a spokesperson for African Americans with his service in the Union Armed Forces. His public career also began during the war. He joined free black delegates to the 1864 Republican National Convention, the first of seven total conventions he attended as a delegate. While awaiting repairs to his ship, Smalls was removed from an all–white streetcar in Philadelphia on December 30, 1864. In the following months, his celebrity allowed him to lead one of the first mass boycotts of segregated public transportation. A city law finally permitted integrated streetcars in 1867.
ABOUT THE HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF WASHINGTON, D.C.
The Historical Society of Washington, D.C., is a community-supported educational and research organization that collects, interprets, and shares the history of our nation's capital. Founded in 1894, the Historical Society serves diverse audiences through its collections, public programs, exhibitions, and publications. The Historical Society offers exhibitions and programs throughout the year encouraging the collection of local history as well as the documentation of contemporary D.C. The Historical Society galleries and research library are located in the historic Carnegie Library at Mt. Vernon Square, 801 K Street NW. To support exhibitions and related programming at the Historical Society and to learn more, please visit dchistory.org.
ABOUT THE AFRICAN AMERICAN CIVIL WAR MEMORIAL AND MUSEUM
“The African American Civil War Memorial Freedom Foundation was incorporated in 1992 to tell the largely unknown story of the United States Colored Troops (USCT). As a tribute to these soldiers, the African American Civil War Memorial was dedicated in July of 1998 under the leadership of Dr. Frank Smith Jr. and Colin Powell. The African American Civil War Museum opened its doors in January of 1999 and communicates the stories of the USCT.
The core mission of the African American Civil War Museum is to serve the educational needs of the local, national, and international communities with a high-quality and effective learning experience while interpreting the history of the USCT and the community life of African Americans prior to, and after, the American Civil War. With this mission as the central aspect of its operations, the Museum constantly seeks to provide a variety of learning opportunities for students of all ages, teachers, scholars, USCT descendants, churches, and the general public through its programming.” For information visit afroamcivilwar.org.