STILL MISSING? Washington D.C. Memorial to Black Soldiers of the Revolutionary War

“Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it” (Thomas Paine, 1776)

Finally!  Kudos to Washington… ahem… Washington, Georgia, that is, not Washington, D.C.. 

According to the Georgia press, The News Reporter, on August 11, 2012, the City of Washington unveiled and dedicated a unique monument to black Revolutionary War soldiers.  The project’s coordinator, David Jenkins, told the press that “…there are no other memorials anywhere that recognize the part played by African-American patriots in the War of Independence,” then suggested that it should bring them national attention.

He’s probably correct.  Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital, seems to still be dragging its feet on the issue of erecting a similar monument near the National Mall.  Long mired in bureaucratic muck, the D.C. project was first approved some 25 years ago!

Unsung Valor, Unfamed Heroes

Since the dawning of the songs and symbols best representing the passion and strength of America, the reasons why African-Americans join the U.S. Armed Forces are as varied as the color-triggered mood optics filtering through the mysterious arcs of a double rainbow. The spectral clash you think you see, or feel, might be poles apart from the visuals which compel others to react.

Full appreciation and understanding of black patriotism and reasons for joining the military is elusive. It stems from a complex array of resolves for staking our claim in the fight for freedom in spite of the backwash and horrors of racism in the United States, masked or uncloaked.  This includes the shameful backdrop of evil-minded political, social and religious agenda associated with the elusive struggle for equal rights and first class citizenship. It’s a malignancy still seen, today.

As Maya Angelo so eloquently speaks within her poem, Still I Rise

“You may write me down in history

 With your bitter, twisted lies, 

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I rise…”

And, we have proudly done so in every major U.S. war since the American Revolution (1775-1783), when 13 North American colonies united in their rebellion against the heavy-handed policies and politics of Great Britain. But, listening to others who have penned our history, while crafting their story, you’d think we had never shouldered any portion of freedom’s burden, until the 1940s and 50s. But, isn’t history often written to preserve society’s status quo?

At least, that’s what I was thinking after recently being invited to join my shipmates and other members of the Cuban Blockade Survivors Association, at this year’s 50th Anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  For me, the number 13 and the strained 13-day face-off between Russia and the United States, teetering on the edge of what we surely felt was the coming of a prophetic World War III, is a poignant reminder of the commitment of the 13 colonies to the cause of freedom, as well as the nameless heroes of the successful Blockade of Cuba, including the bungled Bay of Pigs invasion before it.

That’s why I found myself cracking up behind the statement of the former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld (during 2002 press conference), when talking about Iraq and the missing weapons of destruction. He simply said, “… there are also unknown unknowns- there are things we do not know, we don’t know.” Frankly, I thought it was creatively evasive hogwash, back then, knowing the things I already knew of certain military-related black ops strategies, as well as an unspoken awareness of a critical necessity for them.

And, I pondered its significance further, within the unsung assortment of black sailors, soldiers- free and former slaves-who joined the colonial revolutionary fray. I thought of the pluck and valor of more recent black sailors, soldiers and airmen buried, in the shadows of many white war memorials and burial grounds, among the many earthen mounds and concrete monuments dotting America’s great plains, rolling hills and coastal flat lands, as well as the nation’s capital.  

For me, the ever-lengthening shadows of existing monuments are a haunting reminder of an African proverb which says, “Until lions write their own history, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”  The accompanying silence engulfing the memorials is deafening. It further entombs the exploits and contributions of a people whose zesty zeal for freedom- when viewed non-patronizingly through the proper lens of patriotism- is inspirational of itself, in my opinion.

Troubling Gash, Deafening Silence

It’s been a few years since I last visited the Viet Nam War “Memorial Wall” and associated “Three Soldiers” statue in Washington, D.C.  What I remember most is the long, sunken and troubling gash carved deep into the manicured lawn of the nation’s Constitution Gardens, next to the National Mall, not far from the famed Lincoln Memorial. Its silence is deafening, too. Yet, it is a fitting tribute to the members of the U.S. Armed Forces who fought and died in the Vietnam War, as well as those who were Missing in Action during the conflict- 58,000 lives…  58,000 stories…  58,000 sacrificial reasons, framed within the various images of God, country and freedom.

Surely, this memorial, now anchored by “Faith,” “Hope” and “Charity”– the three uniformed women of the nearby “Vietnam Women’s Memorial”– represents a uniquely symbolic remembrance, as any war memorial becomes. However, “The Three Soldiers” component, portraying an African-American, an Hispanic and a Caucasian soldier, though appropriate, is a nagging reminder of the absence of national tributes to the rest of this country’s various racial or ethnic composition groups which have served in every major war since the American Revolution.

And, the apparent inability of Congress and the National Park Service to get solidly behind the 25-year-old, bureaucratic bungled, on-again/ off-again project to fund and complete the memorial to Black Revolutionary War soldiers is particularly bothersome.  

According to a Cape Cod Times (Hyannis, MA) article by Sean Gonsalves (July 3, 2011, African-American soldiers War heroes), “Congress passed a resolution, signed by Ronald Reagan in 1986, authorizing a memorial to be built in honor of black Revolutionary War veterans. But the authorization for a site expired in 2005 with the privately-funded project yet to break ground.”

At one point, the famed African-American sculptor and historian, Ed Dwight (of Ed Dwight Studios, Inc., Denver Colorado) was commissioned for the project by the Patriots Memorial Foundation of Washington, D.C. His portfolio includes notable black history tributes such as the Inaugural Sculpture Scene of President Barack Obama, an Underground Railroad Memorial in Battle Creek, MI,  Hank Aaron statue at the Atlanta Braves Stadium,  Frederick Douglass statue at the Douglass Museum in Anacostia, various statutes of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Memorial to Rosa Parks, Mother of the Civil Rights Movement, in Grand Rapids, MI, and The John Hope Franklin Tower of Reconciliation in Tulsa, OK, to name a few. 

Black Granite, Bronzed Souls

The Black Revolutionary War Memorial was commissioned in 1991 and designed “to honor the 5,000 enslaved Africans and free persons that served and fought in the American Revolution from 1776 to 1781,” according to Ed Dwight’s website.  It was expected that The site would feature a precinct enclosed by an arching granite monolith and bronze sculpture. The sculpture, which is designed to rise from 3′ to 7.5′ high is 90′ long and will depict the enslaved Africans’ contribution to America, as well as the Revolution from 1619 to 1781. It is to contain some 63 figurative images with the last scene depicting an African American family at the end of the war in 1781, gazing at the Lincoln Memorial contemplating their fate.” The design can be seen at

Various historical archives say that of the more than 250,000 patriots serving in the American Revolutionary War.  Arguably, between 5,000 and 8,000 black soldiers served in America’s Continental Army (Philip S. Foner, “Blacks in the American Revolution,” Greenwood Press).  Of those, some 1,570 were from 194 different communities in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, alone. And, the scrolls of names expand to many conflicts, like the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Boston Massacre and as “Minutemen” in Battles of Lexington and Concord; plus, the battles at Trenton, Princeton, the Brandywine, Monmouth and Yorktown, as well as Washington/s crossing of the Delaware and other skirmishes in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Georgia and the Carolinas.

Of all the black history research, classes and/ or independent studies that I’ve been exposed to over the years, perhaps, none have been more valuable than the occasional visits to various museums and battle fields associated with the raw pursuits of freedom by American Revolutionary War soldiers and citizen soldiers. This includes the hushed achievements of the black seaman, solidly etched in the struggle for freedom before the Virginia legislature voted to use thousands of blacks in the navy, as sailors and pilots, in 1779.

Notably, this was at a time when many states rejected the idea of arming slaves, while accepted their use for handling shipboard ammunition and the skillful job of piloting ships of the Continental Navy, as well as serving on ships in the Confederate States Navy. Archives reveal some black crewmen even helped slaves escape to freedom by hiding them aboard their ships.  Many runaway slaves joined the Continental Navy. And, in the state navies of Virginia and South Carolina, some slaves were forced into duty as seamen, pilots and artisans who built naval vessels and constructed naval fortifications. Some were subsequently freed following service aboard armed state vessels (Foner).

Irrefutable Truths

During this presidential election year, 2012, when our nation may see the re-election of an African-American Commander-in-Chief, it is noteworthy that the nation’s capital still lacks a proper mall monument for the African-American soldier of the Revolutionary War. While tributes and monuments to black soldiers do exist in a few states, a national monument at the D.C. National Mall and Memorial Parks, visited annually by millions, might serve as a better reminder of the long, unique and passionate battle for liberty and dignity waged by African-Americans in the Revolutionary War.

It may also remind the naysayers and those ignorant of the irrefutable truths of African-American history, known and unknown, that our nation’s history represents more than the myopic view of the struggle for freedom, as seen through the lens of Eurocentric prisms.

Meanwhile, as our nation once again struggles to appreciate the multi-cultural beauty that other nations still see, manifested within its selection of an African-American president and Commander-in-Chief, amid the hateful speech and wretched clamoring of Eurocentric purist (some racist, surely, mostly not) may God continue to bless our collective journey, as well as those associated pursuits of happiness and liberty.

May God bless those enlightened minds among us that see fit to put aside the tongue-in-cheek politics and devious campaign promises, in order to specifically honor the black Revolutionary War soldier. It seems to me that the Statue of Liberty- the Golden Door to our way of life- is still shouting, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to be free.”  

And, it forever reminds me of the grateful Cuban refugees which our ship plucked from the beautiful, azure-blue waters of the Caribbean, while fleeing the ugly brand of Communism which had surreptitiously waded ashore- a mere 90 miles away- as we Americans were grappling with various Civil Rights distractions that still fatigue us, today.

Backstreet Djeli  w.d.s.

3 thoughts on “STILL MISSING? Washington D.C. Memorial to Black Soldiers of the Revolutionary War

  1. It’s going to be end of my day, but before I finish I am reading this enormous article to improve
    my experience.

  2. This is great news! Thank you very much for your attention to this long-overdue matter. Your service and timely action is greatly appreciated. And, I’m certain that many Americans will agree. “BackStreet Djeli” w.d.s.

  3. Congress is expected to approve the National Liberty Memorial Act before the lameduck session adjourns. We shared the names of the black patriots with over 500 communities, including the 194 in Massachusetts that you mention. Over 60 communities, governors and legislatures have approved resolutions honoring the history and calling on Congress to approve H.R. 2181 and S. 883. See a running account on Twitter

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About William "Duke" Smither (a.k.a., "Backstreet D'jeli")

William "Duke" Smither, author of “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior, in the Shadows of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade,” is a Frankfort Kentucky native; Richmond Virginia resident. Retired Public Utility Sr. Investigator and nuclear site worker, Married w/ 3 children and 6 grandchildren; U.S. Navy Viet Nam Era & Cuban Missile Crisis Veteran; Member of "Cuban Blockade Survivors" & The American Legion; B.S. Degree (Business Mgmt) w/ independent studies in Ancient African History and African-American History. Post-graduate studies in Criminal Justice Administration. Former Sports & Feature writer for the weekly Richmond Afro-American Newspaper, during Freshman year of college. Retirement activities include: Freelance writer, playwright, actor and director of faith-based community theater productions; founder of "Backstreet's Blog" ("Talking Drum Dialogues") at and former contributing writer for "BlackPast.Org," the international, on-line reference center for African American History. His debut novel, “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior…,” is the first installment of a possible historical-fiction trilogy. A second installment ["Passage(s) to Saint-Domingue...."] is pending completion.