HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. (AP) — While football fans got ready to watch the Super Bowl, local park rangers went back in time to teach visitors about African-American soldiers who fought in the Civil War.
Harpers Ferry National Historical Park kicked off its annual Black History Month exhibit, "The United States Colored Troops and the Spirit of Freedom," with an open house Feb. 2 at the John Brown Museum in Harpers Ferry.
The exhibit focuses on the African-American men who enlisted in the military when the Emancipation Proclamation eliminated laws that suppressed African-Americans from serving in 1863. Two park rangers, Kim Briggs and Gwenny Roper, coordinated the exhibit.
"This is America's history," Biggs said. "This is where we come from. We need to study history to know where we've been and perhaps, get a sense of where we're going in the future. ... It's not a black story. It's not a white story. It's an American story, and it's who we are as a people."
African-Americans served in the military in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, but were denied the right when the Civil War began.
Once they obtained the right to serve for the Union two years into the Civil War, the men volunteered in droves. By the end of the war, more than 200,000 volunteered and about 40,000 died.
"They were putting their life on the line literally," Biggs said. "Even if they were not injured or killed in action; if they would be captured, they would no doubt have been executed for being a black man. Yet, they were out there fighting for their freedom and for everyone's freedom."
The showcase includes artwork and artifacts on display. Children are sent on a scavenger hunt in the park to learn about more African-American history, nearby museums, the 1862 Battle of Harpers Ferry, and other historical events and landmarks. Upon completion, the children receive a park ranger badge as a reward.
"Hopefully (children) will not only learn about the United States Colored Troops, but they'll learn more about Harpers Ferry's history, and they'll have fun while they're doing it," Biggs said.
The special exhibit also features other African Americans from Berkeley and Jefferson Counties who served in the military, including Martin Delany, the only black officer to receive the rank of major during the Civil War.
The museum was named after John Brown, a white abolitionist who attempted to end slavery. In 1859, Brown attempted to arm slaves by leading a raid of a federal armory in Harper Ferry, which was unsuccessful and led to his capture. He was eventually tried and executed.
"He (made) a very prophetic statement, "I, John Brown, am not quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land-slavery-will only be purged away in blood," Biggs said. "A year a half after Brown's raid, the Civil War erupted."
The exhibit runs through February. For additional information, contact Biggs at 304-535-6024 or Roper at 304-535-6166.
Information from: The Journal, http://journal-news.net/