Expanding our knowldege about black soldiers Mary Corey


September 27, 1990|By David Zurawik

He wasn't prepared for the memories.

William De Shields knew he'd enjoy "The Civil War," the critically acclaimed PBS documentary that concludes tonight, but he hadn't realized it would take him back 36 years to his own difficult days in the Army.

Days when he overheard a white recruit describe his greatest fear about enlisting as "having to room with a black." Days when white soldiers under his command feasted at a lunch counter, while he had to wait outside. And nights when he slept in his car because no hotel would accept a black man.

Yet if the 11-hour series has brought a painful part of his past to the surface, it has also satisfied him that the contributions of the 180,000 black soldiers in the Civil War are finally being recognized.

"It's about time," laments Mr. De Shields, 58, a retired Army colonel who lives in Arnold. "It's important to the self-esteem of blacks to know they played an important role in the shaping of this country."

Reaction to the series among a number of African-Americans in Maryland has been bittersweet.

Many are filled with praise for the documentary by producer Ken Burns, which -- along with "Glory," a Civil War movie released last year about the first all-black military unit in the North -- serves to bring greater awareness to the pivotal role blacks played in the war.

At the same time, however, some blacks have found themselves wincing at the accounts of mistreatment endured by their forefathers. And in some circles, the series has renewed debate about how much -- or how little -- attitudes have changed since those dark days of the 1860s.

"The door is opening to let the world know that there is another ethnic group -- specifically the African-American -- who has helped to defend this country," says Barbara Jackson, coordinator of education and programs for the Maryland Commission on Afro-American History and Culture in Annapolis.

For Charles Banks, a 67-year-old former Air Force sergeant, the program has taught him more about black military accomplishments.

"When I was going to school, we didn't have too much on Negro history," says the Northwest Baltimore resident. "None of the history books had anything on it. All we heard was the old people talking about it."

Some local school officials are eager to bring "The Civil War" and "Glory" into the classroom.

Although students in Baltimore City schools are not required to watch the documentary, many teachers are encouraging pupils to tune in, says Brigitte Johnson, spokeswoman for the city school system.

Similarly, Ms. Jackson -- who is working with the State Board of Education to integrate black history into the curriculum -- plans to recommend the documentary as required viewing for teen-agers.

"Our younger generation does not know the contributions our people made to the defense of this country," she says. "It's marvelous to have this and to recommend it. Young people find it more interesting than just having a history book opened."

In another effort to educate youngsters and adults, Mr. De Shields three years ago formed the Black Military History Institute of America, a Maryland-based group promoting military achievements of African-Americans from the Revolutionary to the Vietnam wars.

After reading about the unheralded bravery of black soldiers and the gross injustices they faced, Mr. De Shields resolved to create the organization. "I felt I owed it to blacks to tell their story," he says. "It's the very least we can do. Until this point there was no one to tell it for them."

He collected a vast array of memorabilia, which he and other members exhibit throughout the state. His dream for the organization -- which now has 105 members and a chapter in Atlanta -- is to have a black military museum.

He hopes his organization and programs like "The Civil War" will change the way history is recorded.

"We'd like to dispel the terms black history or Asian history or Hispanic history and just call it American history. When we call it Asian history or black history, we give the idea that it's something extra. It's optional. But it's more important than that. This is American history."

Yet, as Ms. Jackson has watched the program, she has found herself strikingly aware of the parallels between the struggles blacks faced then and the ones they face today.

"People were laboring under a false assumption that the war would guarantee a kind of freedom," she says. "People were laying their lives on the line thinking that the worst treatment of a human being would be over. . . . that has not happened.

"We're still laboring. Some of the attitudes I saw that were prevalent then are still around now. We still have people who consider a black a second-class citizen. We have black men defending this country at the same time as we have the Ku Klux Klan marching."

'Civil War' holding most of audience

"The Civil War" has continued to hold most of the huge audience that tuned in for Sunday's premiere of the five-part PBS documentary.

Nielsen overnight ratings for Monday and Tuesday from the nation's largest TV markets show "The Civil War" holding steady with an audience of about 8.25 million television households, or about 13 percent of the television sets in use each night. Sunday's rating was a 9, Monday's a 9.1, and Tuesday's a 8.7 for the nation's 24 overnight markets.

Overnight ratings are not kept for Baltimore. In Washington, the audience for the series on WETA continued to grow, with Tuesday's show winning a 9.5 rating and a 14 share, up 13 percent from Monday.

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