By Hazel Trice Edney
In the 400th year since the first enslaved Africans reached the shores of America, a groundbreaking in the nation’s Capital has begun a monumental $45 million expansion of a facility to honor Black veterans of the Civil War – slaves and descendants of slaves – who literally fought their way to freedom.
“You all know that we started this African American Civil War Museum for two purposes – one was to correct a great wrong in history, which pretty much ignored the contributions of African-American soldiers ending slavery and keeping America united under one flag,” Dr. Frank Smith, executive director and founder of the African American Civil War Museum, told a packed house in D.C.’s historic Shaw neighborhood Oct. 17.
Smith continued the brief history lesson before the rapt audience: “When the Civil War started, African-Americans had no pathway to citizenship in the United States. We were defined in the Constitution as being chattel slaves. And every court decision from that point up to the Civil War reinforced our position and our status in society. We don’t get a chance to fight for our freedom until Lincoln gets himself caught up in a war that he can’t win without doing something about slavery. And so he ended up enlisting two hundred thousand Blacks in the Union Army. The nation paid no attention to these soldiers until we built a monument to them.”
Just across the street from the museum, which is housed in the historic Grimke School building on Vermont Avenue North West, is a bronze memorial, a statue of three soldiers standing guard. The statue is surrounded by a wall with the carvings of 209,145 names of those who served among the United States Colored Troops.
That museum and memorial – fixtures in the U Street community for the past 21 years – are about to undergo a $45 million expansion project that will accomplish the second purpose for which the museum was built. In addition to providing greater space for artifacts and programs to honor the Black soldiers, it is expected to create an economic boom in the once depressed area as people come from across the nation to visit the historic spot.
“We wanted to find a way to get tourism into this community. We get 20 million tourists in the city every year,” said Smith, a former Ward 1 councilman, who envisioned and founded the museum in 1992. “They spend $6 – $10 billion dollars every year Downtown. So it’s pretty easy if we can find a way to get them here and spend some of that money up here in this neighborhood,” he said.
D. C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and her staff, helping with the ground breaking, led the way to the new beginning for the project after several pauses due to stormy political waters and budget problems over the years. The grand opening is finally set to take place in the fall of 2020.
“Our former Ward 1 council member is making sure that we not only grow as a city, but that we grow together as a city and that we preserve the rich history that we’ve been blessed with. And this Memorial is certainly a testament and a commitment to how we do that for our city and for our nation. So, Frank, you deserve tremendous applause and appreciation from all of us,” Mayor Bowser said.
Among the plans for the development:
- The African American Civil War Museum will move out of its current building into a second much larger building next door.
- The 133,000 square foot project will include 12,000 feet for the world headquarters of architectural giant Torti Gallas, which will set up office with more than 100 employees and partners in the building that the museum is vacating. Torti Gallas also is the architectural firm behind the entire project.
- There will be approximately 70 housing units with 20 percent of them at “below market” price, according to Bowser, who said affordable housing in the area had been among her chief concerns as she established a long-term vision projecting 50-100 years.
- The new influx of Torti Gallas employees, construction workers, and other retail employees into the neighborhood; plus the tourist draw to the newly renovated museum and new neighborhood residents are expected to bring the economic boom. Among those applauding in the audience was Virginia Ali, co-founder of the historic Ben’s Chili Bowl restaurant right down the street.
- Adding to the historicity of the project, Dr. Smith said a statue of President Abraham Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation will be erected in front of the museum, looking across the street at the monument. “It’ll be the only one in the nation’s capital,” he said, awarding the first heavy replica of the statue to Mayor Bowser.
John Torti, president of Torti Gallas, said he not only looks forward to redesigning and renovating the two buildings, but he has dreamed of being a resident of such a neighborhood.
“For me, personally, I’ve always wanted to have an office in the city. I’ve always wanted to walk to work,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to have a space that represents the kind of redevelopment and rebuilding and transformation that our firm represents. I’ve always wanted to come to work in a building that people like Frank Smith work in. In 50 years of being an architect, my dream has come true with Grimke.”
As with any new development, amidst all the pleasantries and congratulations, there are yet controversy and questions.Dr. Smith forthrightly addressed the issue of gentrification as well as how crime in the Shaw neighborhood had to be dealt with as the neighborhood has gradually changed over the years.
“When I first started working up here, I, as a council member, people were scared to walk around up here,” he said. He said nearby Howard University “started busing the kids back and forth to the dormitories. They were scared to let them walk around in the street. People need to have a place to live where they can walk through the community; where they can go to school. So, I’m not apologetic about that. We have to fight to make our communities better. We all want to live in better communities. We just have to fight to stay there. That’s the only way we’re going to progress in America.”
Responding to Smith, current Ward I Council member Brianne K. Nadeau, having worked on the project for 15 years, described, in part, how the gentrification issue will be dealt with.
“Dr. Smith talked about a phenomenon of gentrification here in this neighborhood. And one of the things that we have to keep doing in areas that are becoming gentrified is ensure that we solidify the history and the memories of things that were here and build things that acknowledge the African-American community,” Nadeau said.”This is critical because there are people who’ve lived here in this corridor their whole lives who don’t recognize it anymore and don’t think the things that are being built are for them. But this is being built for them. This is being built for all of them. For those who’ve been here a long time, for those who will come and need to understand the history. And I want us to be together in that moment and to understand the gravity of that. And just really appreciate it and congratulate each other because everybody in this room played a part in getting this.”