Hurdles remain for memorial to early black patriots Fund drive goes slowly for D.C. mall monument to colonial soldiers


DENVER -- In a cavernous sculpture studio here, Ed Dwight tweaked wax into a colonial tricorn hat, filling out the Continental Army uniform of a soldier with markedly African features.

With each wax musket and powder horn, a maquette is taking shape of a memorial to the 5,000 black soldiers and sailors who fought for colonial America's freedom -- and for their own.

The Black Revolutionary War Patriots Memorial would be the first permanent tribute to black people on the National Mall in Washington. But like every other new memorial and museum in Washington -- the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Korean War Memorial and, now, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial -- the Black Patriots Memorial has its share of drama and controversy.

"I feel the way Paul Revere must have: The deadline is coming; the deadline is coming," Wayne F. Smith, executive director of the Black Patriots Foundation, the organizer for the memorial, said in an interview from Washington.

The backers face an immutable deadline: Build by Oct. 27 or lose the spot to one of 69 other groups that have petitioned the National Park Service for the last space permitted for monuments on the Mall.

Ten years after Congress voted to authorize the memorial, which has to be built entirely with private money, one-third of the needed $9 million has been pledged or raised.

All of it must be on hand before work can start.

In 1992, dissatisfied with the pace of fund raising, the foundation board removed the co-founder and first president of the organization, Maurice A. Barboza.

Congress has yet to vote on a bill to allow the minting of a commemorative coin, a mechanism that helped pay for the Vietnam Veterans and Korean War Memorials.

So acute is the problem that the foundation has hired a fund-raising organization to make a frantic all-out push before the deadline.

Last month, thousands of appeal letters went out across the nation.

Long omitted from history books, blacks played a significant role in the Revolutionary War, starting with Crispus Attucks, the first American casualty. He died in the Boston Massacre in 1770.

George Washington, a Virginia slave owner, initially rejected appeals by black freemen in Boston to join the Continental Army.

But he reversed his stand after British officers had recruited large numbers of slaves by promising them freedom at the war's end.

Some slaves joined the colonists' side, paying for their freedom with their sign-up bounties.

The colonies of Massachusetts and Rhode Island fielded all-black units. But most blacks were scattered through the Revolutionary army, fighting in integrated units.

In addition to bearing arms, blacks aided the Continental Army and Navy as ship pilots, blacksmiths, teamsters and spies. When Washington crossed the Delaware, two black soldiers were at the oars.

"It was not for their own land they fought, nor even for a land which had adopted them, but for a land which had enslaved them, and whose laws, even in freedom, oftener oppressed than protected," Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote in 1855 for a history, "Colored Patriots of the American Revolution."

"Bravery, under such circumstances, has a peculiar beauty and merit," she wrote.

Today, fund-raisers for the Revolutionary War memorial suffer from a handicap not faced by fund-raisers for other recent memorials. There are, of course, no living veterans of the Revolutionary War, and few people know the black soldiers' roles.

Although black America's purchasing power now totals $400 billion a year, Smith said, donations have only trickled in from African-Americans.

In his studio in northeastern Denver, a predominantly black area, Dwight reflected on the reasons for that reaction.

One, he speculated, is a lack of knowledge about the black soldiers' roles.

"They ask, 'There were black people on the continent then?' " he said of the response from potential donors.

The memorial, which would be a five-minute walk from the Vietnam War Memorial, would be a bronze bas-relief stretching for 90 feet but rising no higher than 7 feet.

Walking along the wall, visitors would follow what blacks did in colonial America: African slaves picking cotton, construction workers carrying wood beams, a black businessman engaging in trade. Attucks confronting British soldiers. Blacks petitioning colonial legislatures for their freedom. Blacks who listened to a reading of the Declaration of Independence, and blacks who took up arms.

The memorial culminates with a battle scene and a black family's reunion at the war's end.

Dwight, a former test pilot and the first black man to train to be an astronaut, finds fault with what he calls an obsession with black suffering instead of heroism.

"No matter how successful we are, we are still on a victimization roll," he said.

"If you tell black people that we are doing something on slavery, they would be writing checks left and right."

Dwight has spent his career trying to focus on success rather than on his personal experience of adversity. Thirty years ago, he abruptly cut short what had been a promising career in the Air Force.

The program for black astronauts foundered after President John F. Kennedy's assassination, Dwight said. Dwight left the military and reinvented himself as a sculptor.

In 1977, he earned an master of fine arts degree from the University of Denver. His first major breakthrough was with a series called "Black Cowboys."

His latest series is "Jazz Masters." Much like "Black Cowboys," his Black Patriots Memorial is designed to teach black history to those who visit it.

Pub Date: 8/04/96

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.