Twenty-four years ago, a man with a dream saw it come to fruition in front of tens of thousands of people.
On Saturday, July 18, 1998, a mostly sunny day with near 100-degree temperatures, the “Spirit of Freedom” monument — the brainchild of longtime former Ward 1 D.C. Councilman Frank Smith — was unveiled at the African American Civil War Memorial in D.C.
The unveiling made front-page news at The Washington Post, The Washington Times and other major newspapers across America, with headlines like “Another Lesson in History of Civil War,” “In Touch With the Past” “Memorial to Black Civil War Troops Unveiled” and “Black Civil War Contributions Remembered as Statue Unveiled.”
Today, we invite you to join the founding director, the Honorable Frank Smith, and the board of directors of the African American Civil War Memorial Freedom Foundation, Inc., along with the Rev. Dr. George Holmes, guest speaker and honorary ambassador, for the 24th-anniversary celebration of the monument. Then mark your calendar to come back again next year, when we celebrate 25 years.
The 1998 dedication ceremony was a day to be remembered, when families from around the world came to U Street in northwest Washington to view this magnificent, life-sized monument, designed to stand on a foundation only a few feet from the ground. The sculptor, Ed Hamilton of Louisville, Kentucky, said he wanted a monument that paid tribute to the U.S. Colored Troops — one the public could touch, that looked and felt real.
Washington Post staff writer Linda Wheeler wrote in an article at the time, “In Touch with the Past: Memorial to Black Civil War Troops Unveiled”: “As dedication ceremonies for the new National Memorial to Black Civil War troops lasted two hours yesterday, the crowd surged forward, reaching out to touch a gun, foot or head of the statue depicting the courage of those Soldiers and Sailors who fought for the Union. They had waited through two hours of speeches, songs and prayers for the chance to see and then caress the statue, ‘The Spirit of Freedom.'”
Appointed in 1991 as project director of the Memorial, which pays tribute to 209,145 United States Colored Troops, I worked closely with Smith from the groundbreaking until the unveiling. It was life-changing work that will last longer than my life, work that took nearly 10 years to complete, requiring cooperation with local and federal governments, private agencies, contractors, an architectural design team led by the late Paul Devrouax, and numerous volunteers to assist with coordination of the unveiling celebration.
Upon completion of my role as project director, we went our separate ways, but from time to time, Dr. Smith continues to call upon me as a consultant for major events, such as the 10th anniversary, 20th anniversary and, now, the 24th anniversary of the unveiling of the monument.
For the millions of visitors who continue to come by busloads to visit this monument, they also will soon be able to visit the new home of the museum that will house the historical artifacts of the Memorial in a magnificent and much larger space. This new space will be celebrated later this year with a ribbon-cutting ceremony hosted by Mayor Muriel Bowser and attended by government officials, descendants of the U.S. Colored Troops, their families and the general public. All will be invited to see the new space, which will be housed in the Grimke School, located across from the Memorial.
Lyndia Grant is a speaker/writer living in the D.C. area. Her radio show, “Think on These Things,” airs Fridays at 6 p.m. on 1340 AM (WYCB), a Radio One station. To reach Grant, visit her website, www.lyndiagrant.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 240-602-6295. Follow her on Twitter @LyndiaGrant and on Facebook.