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The event held back in September 1996 was a major gala, the type of several-days-long jubilee that commemorates a real achievement, a high point in the life of a city. Hundreds flocked to the District to celebrate the opening, finally, of a memorial dedicated to African-American soldiers who served in the Civil War.
Civil War re-enactors paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue, followed by present-day troops and a military band. Revelers later congregated for religious services at the Lincoln Memorial, a swanky black-tie ball at the Washington Sheraton Hotel, and a dedication ceremony at the memorial’s 10th and U Streets site, which was attended by local officials and even former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Gen. Colin Powell.
The days amounted to one showy, riotous celebration—with only one glitch: There was no African-American Civil War Memorial to commemorate. At least not yet. Then-D.C. Councilmember Frank Smith Jr. had proposed the project in 1991, promising to have it completed by 1996. But construction costs had sent the project slightly over budget, so organizers were forced to raise more money. It was too late to cancel the ceremony, so Smith held the party anyway—but he pushed the completion date back to 1997.
But by March 1997, the site still wasn’t ready, so Smith rescheduled a four-day celebration for June. In June, the project still needed more cash before construction could start. That fall, Smith promised that there would be no more delays.
Fall passed into spring. Another dedication was set for March 1998, but Ward 1 Councilmember Smith was worried that the memorial wouldn’t be done by then. Wanting to avoid the embarrassment of having another empty celebration, he pushed the date back, again, to July, just to be safe. In July, D.C.’s Department of Public Works (DPW)—which was serving as general contractor on the monument—hadn’t completed the semicircular stone walls that would hold 155 stainless-steel plaques bearing soldiers’ names. But the Spirit of Freedom—the bronze sculpture that is the centerpiece of the site—was complete and mounted on its circular base, so Smith decided to go ahead with the ceremony. Another grand celebration, another parade. Celebrants gathered at Howard University for a symposium on black Civil War soldiers and later at a Freedom Ball at the Hyatt Regency Washington on Capitol Hill. Re-enactors marched again, this time down Georgia Avenue to the site, where the statue was unveiled.
But still no completed memorial. Smith promised it would be done by Veterans Day. New Year’s was the next target date. When that one fell through, the date was moved to March.
There was a flash of hope in May. That’s when a revised batch of the stainless-steel plaques arrived. For a short time it seemed as though the project would finally come together. A construction worker installed the new batch of plates on the stone walls—then promptly removed them once organizers realized the plaques would not fit together neatly.
It’s now September 1999, more than eight years after Smith first proposed the idea and three years after it was first scheduled for completion. Smith, no longer a councilmember, says work will likely be done this fall, but he’s holding off on planning a celebration until later this year—maybe by Christmas, he says. “We’ve learned our lesson,” Smith admits.
And what would that lesson be? That anything involving District politicians and the DPW is bound to end up in the ditch? Or that when the recipients of an honor are black, funding and accountability are tough to come by? Or that maybe there continues to be a curse on the black men who took up arms to defend a country that never did much to defend them?
Constructing a memorial, especially in Washington, is tough business. Competing political agendas, disagreements over what constitutes history, and myriad sources of design oversight make it difficult to set memory in stone. But even in that context, the African-American Civil War Memorial long ago passed the respectable benchmark for typical setbacks. It went from high hopes to a running joke before it was ever built.
People who didn’t support the project in the first place and were skeptical of Smith’s ability to run it now nod knowingly. And even early supporters, including some descendants of the soldiers, have found it difficult to defend the delays.
For some, the memorial and the people in charge of it are beyond excuse.
“I think the project should be independently audited,” says Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations. “I understand delays. It happens. But it’s gotten to the point where it’s inexcusable and inexplainable.”
A recent visit suggests that, promises aside, the memorial is finally in the home stretch. It’s a busy construction site, and work seems to be progressing. But will anybody care when it’s finally finished?
“It’s been going on for so long that people have (a) lost their enthusiasm for it, and (b) they’ve kind of gotten used to walking through a construction site,” says Paul K. Williams, former vice president of the Cardozo Shaw Neighborhood Association. “They’ve kind of given up hope.”
Booker Brooks has gotten used to waiting. Not that he likes it, but he’s learned to endure delays with dignity.
It’s only fitting, then, that I’m late to an interview with Brooks. We were supposed to meet at Ben’s Chili Bowl, a U Street institution, at 10:30 on a weekday morning. I show up at 10:45. Brooks has already called my office once and is dialing a second time when I stop him at the pay phone. He gives me a cool look and returns the receiver to the cradle.
Brooks is dressed in a white linen suit with a blue tie and a safari-style hat. He walks with perfect posture and talks in a smooth, controlled tone. A former computer science and math teacher in the D.C. public schools, Brooks has dedicated his retirement to researching his family history. Among his ancestors: Thaddeus Sasportas, a great-uncle who served in the Union’s U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) in the Civil War.
We settle in a booth, and Brooks spreads some papers and photographs across the table in front of us. He begins the story of his great-uncle, as I’m sure he’s done many times before. He’s slow and careful with the details. Sasportas was born in Charleston, S.C., to one of the area’s few landowning black families. He left home in the 1850s and headed for Philadelphia, where he hoped to get a good education. War broke out while he was in the North, so Sasportas enlisted in the 127th Regiment of the USCT on Sept. 2, 1864, a scholar turned soldier.
Brooks didn’t always know the details of his great-uncle’s life and career as a soldier. History books at Brooks’ segregated school in Asheville, N.C., didn’t include a mention of the USCT—or most African-Americans. His family talked little of it. It wasn’t until Brooks started his research, flipping through documents at the National Archives and digging through boxes in South Carolina courthouses, that he uncovered his great-uncle’s heroic past. “The things [my family] could have told me in 15 minutes, it takes me tons of hours and thousands of dollars,” says Brooks.
Back during the time they served, black soldiers were a novelty and received a fair amount of attention. But as soon as the war ended, the process of forgetting began. When Union veterans marched down Pennsylvania Avenue as part of an 1865 victory parade, black soldiers were not invited.
The process of rewriting history to provide a more truthful account of blacks’ role in the Civil War eventually yielded the 1989 film Glory, which popularized a long-ignored component of the American narrative. But, like the memorial itself, the film took a long time.
Brooks does not need to be reminded. “They never wanted us to know who we are and where we came from,” he says. “We are a lost, mixed-up people. We lost our own culture.”
Family research has become Brooks’ private remembrance, the form of memorializing he’s turned to in the absence of national recognition: “There’s a whole different attitude you have once you know who you are and where you come from.”
When we leave Ben’s, I ask Brooks if he wants to stop by the memorial to check on its progress. He hasn’t seen it for a few weeks, and he seems uninterested now. But he consents—mostly, it seems, in an effort to humor me. Most of the plaques on the wall are still covered in plastic wrapping, so we can’t check on the entry for Sasportas. No matter. His ancestor’s name is spelled wrong anyway, says Brooks.
Brooks believes that the memorial is a real victory for African-Americans, as do most descendants. It’s recognition that’s long overdue, and the repeated dedication ceremonies have been a glorious way to celebrate the forgotten contributions of their ancestors.
But still, some descendants can’t fight the lingering feeling that the black community has been disregarded once again. This is the first-ever national monument to African-Americans in the country, and yet the project has dragged on so long that it appears the city is almost indifferent to its completion.
“We have been emasculated since time began in this country,” says Brooks. “We have never gotten the credit. Never.”
Brooks, like other descendants, appreciates the fact that the memorial is set in a mostly black neighborhood named for Col. Robert Gould Shaw, the white commanding officer of the Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Infantry (Colored), the band of black soldiers depicted in Glory. But that location also means that there is still no memorial to African-Americans on the Mall—which leaves some descendants wondering about the larger meaning behind the absence of a black presence in America’s premier historical corridor.
“Everything that has occurred…is an indication of the lack of the priority when it comes to African-Americans,” says Sharon Ogunfiditimi, whose great-grandfather was a USCT soldier. “There’s a good reason to have it [in Shaw], but it still should have national recognition. It should be shared by the world.”
There’s no such thing as a controversy-free monument. Washington is full of stories about monument construction that dragged on for years, hampered by disputes over site selection and efforts to raise the dollars to build those collective dreams. Take the Washington Monument, for example, which was built right at the time of the Civil War. Construction of the towering monolith lasted more than 36 years, suspended entirely for almost a quarter-century as organizers bickered over who had control.
By comparison, Smith’s memorial started out with significant advantages. Smith did his homework and counted his votes before moving ahead. He had the support of his council colleagues early on, and in 1992, they passed a resolution urging
D. C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton to pitch the idea to Congress. (The proposed site was on a triangle of federal land in Shaw, and the project needed congressional approval.) The bill made its way through various congressional obstacles without any real hang-ups in 1993.
Obtaining funding and approval from the local commissions that oversee monuments in the city looked daunting, but again, the process was relatively painless. The proposed memorial was estimated to cost no more than $2 million—a fraction of the cost of some behemoth projects in the city. According to Smith, most of the money came from funds already earmarked for the city—$1 million from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (Metro) and another $1 million from the Federal Highway Administration, which doles out cash to the city to maintain highways and other federal land.
Smith was in a prime spot to lobby for city allocations. Unlike many other memorial organizers, the councilmember had only to walk down the hall to ask fellow lawmakers to support the project. “We would not be nearly this far along if I hadn’t been a key official in an important position,” concedes Smith.
The proposal also passed the review of memorial overlords without any real snafus. The National Capital Memorial Commission, the National Capital Planning Commission, and the federal Commission of Fine Arts approved the proposal in the early 1990s, says Smith. All had minor suggestions, but all were happy with the design and choice of sites.
“It was pretty much smooth sailing,” says Charles Atherton, secretary of the Commission of Fine Arts.
That is, it was smooth sailing before the project floated into the rocky waters of the District government—more precisely, the DPW, a body that’s scarcely known for getting things done on time, let alone quickly. The agency took on the role of general contractor—something it’s done for roads and bridges, but not for national monuments. Smith says he and other memorial organizers had a choice between the DPW and Metro, but selected the city agency because they wanted to keep the project all in the D.C. government family. “Somebody had to do it,” says Smith. “Generally, I thought it was a good decision….It engaged the rest of the District government.”
Whether it was driven by politics or the imperatives of home rule, it was not a good decision. Even though he was instrumental in awarding the business to the DPW, Smith now blames most of the construction delays on the agency. When building finally started in the fall of 1997, says Smith, DPW officials told him the project would take no more than 120 days. But delays and constant bungling put the project hopelessly behind schedule and over budget. There were endless errors with the printing of the metal plates, for instance. A “computer glitch” wreaked havoc on an early version, creating typos and running many names together. About 40 plates from a second batch, which were supposed to be installed before the July 1998 celebration, had to be reprinted because thousands of names were missing.
Smith blames the chronic problems on poor oversight and a “general malaise” at the DPW. He says DPW officials did not keep tabs on the slow progress of work by contractors and did little to penalize them for their mistakes. By this summer, he says, he was worried that the agency had forgotten the project altogether. For many hot days in July, only a single worker twiddled away on the memorial.
“There’s a real problem with how the District government deals with its contractors,” says Smith.
DPW officials shrug and say the mistakes happen; they’ve done the best they can. Mike Carter, DPW deputy director for missions support, says officials will assign financial penalties to contractors, if they see fit, when construction is finally done. He adds that they’ve had to take extra time and care with this project, considering the import. “When Michelangelo was working on the ceilings of the Vatican, the pope would try to come down and rush him. I don’t think the pope was really the artist, and we know what Michelangelo ended up with—something that’s lasted into perpetuity,” says Carter. “That’s what this monument is going to do, last into perpetuity.”
But so far, it’s only the construction that’s lasted into perpetuity. And the DPW is no Michelangelo, says Edward D. Dunson, the architect who designed the memorial along with the architecture firm of Devrouax & Purnell, which helped design the Frank D. Reeves Center of Municipal Affairs at 14th and U Streets NW. Dunson says the DPW as middleman has complicated coordination of the project and compromised quality. He commends the stonecutters for “meticulous” effort but says other contracting work, like landscaping, was quick and shoddy. “I’m not sure the city saw it as any more than a project that had to be built,” says Dunson.
Smith now worries that the slow pace will have a lasting impact on the memorial, when and if it’s finished. Endless construction has delayed transfer of the monument to the control of the National Park Service, which will eventually oversee its upkeep. In the meantime, no one’s been maintaining the work that has been done; the bronze sculpture has been left to tarnish and the greenery to shrivel in the hot summer weather. “Only the [DPW] could be satisfied with this type of project,” says Smith. “I can’t believe anyone else would be satisfied with this pace….I don’t know what more I can do except fuss about it.”
Frank Smith is a nice guy. A friendly, slow-talkin’, head-noddin’, lay-on-the-Southern-hospitality kind of nice guy. He’s got plenty of time to talk, and he likes to do so with a slow drawl—the kind of voice that makes you think you could just as easily be on a Georgia porch, drinking iced tea in the sweltering Southern heat, as talking shop in a stuffy D.C. office.
And Smith is also a dreamer. He’s got lots of ideas—ideas for the city, for Shaw, for the black community. The ideas for the memorial have no end. He spends a fair amount of time talking about a museum planned for the building adjacent to the site. The African-American Civil War Memorial Freedom Foundation, created in 1992, currently rents the bottom floor of the Prince Hall Masonic Temple, right next to the memorial, but the space is now only sparsely decorated. There are a couple of computers in the back, some old photographs and articles on the walls, and artifacts, like buttons and belt buckles, from Civil War uniforms. But Smith sees more. As he walks me around the room, he draws imaginary pictures with his hands and tells me about plans for a computer center, a display of Civil War memorabilia from a Florida collector, and “interactive kiosks” where visitors can access information from TV monitors with the touch of a finger. His verbal sketches lure me in, and it’s hard not to get caught
up in them.
But Smith seems better at dreaming the dreams than introducing them to reality. A longtime councilmember, Smith was never known for helping the rubber meet the road, former colleagues say. In the 1980s, he led a romantic, but ultimately fruitless, effort to bring baseball back to the District. A few years later, he chaired the council committee responsible for overseeing the troubled local housing authority, which headed further into dysfunction during his tenure. In 1998, he lost a re-election campaign to current Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, mainly because he couldn’t deliver the kind of basic services ward residents really needed, say former colleagues and constituents.
That the memorial is experiencing problems under his management comes as no surprise to many. “Frank could not get things done as a councilmember, and that’s why he lost his seat,” says Lynch. “Is anyone surprised he can’t get a memorial done? I don’t think so.”
Smith should get a nod for being the visionary behind the project and lobbying hard for financial support—a nod that many don’t hesitate to give. “Frank was the moving force behind [the memorial],” says Ward 2 Councilmember Evans. “He was emotionally and personally involved in this project.”
But details have bedeviled his dream, and managing minutiae was never his department. “He’s an idea man. He’s not an administrative man,” says a former council staffer of Smith’s. “Frank was never good at managing things, period….Frank worked really, really hard. He was really committed to [the memorial], but he’s really not a follow-through kind of guy….I’m surprised it’s up at all.”
Former Smith Chief of Staff Mark Brown watched over the memorial during the first few years and says the project progressed smoothly during his tenure. He says Smith worked hard and left details to his staff, as was proper. “Frank would craft ideas, and we would just start putting the meat on bone,” he says. “That’s the way I thought you’d want the staff to operate.”
But a former staffer says Smith should have had one person stick with the project over the long haul. “He needed someone who was going to stay with it for a long time. Nobody did,” says this staffer.
Some Ward 1 residents say the memorial wasn’t the only thing to suffer while Smith juggled duties. “I think he spent a lot more time on that than he did on constituent concerns,” says Glenn Melcher, a Shaw advisory neighborhood commissioner.
Ward 1 residents might have been more understanding if they had believed that Smith’s pursuit was entirely selfless. It would be unfair to say that Smith didn’t have a genuine interest in commemorating the African-American soldiers of the Civil War. He’d grown up fighting for his forgotten black brethren. A Georgia native, Smith had been active in the civil rights movement and a member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. He’s working pro bono for the current project and says he relies on retirement funds he’s saved over the years. (Smith hopes, however, that the Park Service will provide him and Project Director Lyndia Grant-Briggs with paid positions once the city transfers the project to federal control.)
But critics in the ward say Smith’s sincerity was overshadowed by an interest in promoting himself at a critical time in his political career. “All that you knew was, every time Frank Smith was running for re-election, there was another dedication ceremony,” says local activist and Ward 1 resident Dorothy Brizill, who unsuccessfully challenged Smith for his council seat in 1994. “I think it was Frank Smith’s memorial to himself.”
Smith scoffs at the suggestion. “It’s something that’s a culmination of my lifelong work,” he says. “For me, politics was always a means to an end. I think that this transcends politics….This is something I always wanted to do. I would have spent four more years on the council, but eventually, I wanted to come here and do this.”
The effort to acknowledge the contribution of black soldiers to the Civil War didn’t begin with Frank Smith—not by a long shot. In the 1880s, war veteran and black activist George Washington Williams first proposed a national monument to the black Civil War soldiers, to be built on the Howard University campus. Williams convinced a couple of senators to introduce a bill in Congress, but the notion died during debate.
African-American families and activists haven’t had much luck honoring their black ancestors since then. As the country rides hard into the 21st century, the Washington historical narrative still lacks a chapter about the black figures in this nation’s military past. All the talk about funding and space issues can’t obscure the fact that black heroes have never had a place at the table of honorees in American history. Simple math suggests that it’s much easier to build consensus when the cause or people being honored are part of the majority culture.
Things that seemed simple enough—like coming up with soldiers’ names—were endlessly complicated by blacks’ historical position at the back of the bus. Researching African-American history is not an easy task, says Barbara Franco, executive director of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., especially when the history reaches back to the days of slavery. Few records from the 19th century include very detailed information about blacks, says Franco. Census records from the time list only race and gender for most African-Americans, and nothing about names or family relationships. Researchers often have to resort to looking through plantation slave ownership accounts or wills that transferred African Americans from one slave-owning family to another. “The problem is, how do you tweeze out information from public records that weren’t intended to provide documentation?” says Franco.
Smith admits he was naive about the challenges at first. He made a couple of calls to Howard University professors, assuming that the history department could provide him with answers. They assured him that the process would be more difficult than he expected, and directed him to Walter B. Hill Jr., senior archivist for federal records and African-American history at the National Archives.
That’s where Smith struck gold—sort of. Hill had comprehensive military records of soldiers who had served in the 166 regiments of black Union soldiers, but warned Smith that there would still be plenty of work to do. The archives had “Compiled Military Service Records” for every black soldier who had enlisted in the Union Army, which included details like date of enlistment, major battles, any injuries, and date and reason for discharge. But Hill was sure there were plenty of duplicate records and misspellings. Black soldiers fleeing slavery often enlisted under false names, and, if they switched units to avoid pursuers, they might enlist with entirely new identification information, says Hill.
History books generally cited the number of USCT soldiers and their white commanding officers as somewhere in the 185,000 range, says Hill. Records at the National Archives showed something like 239,000—and each of those needed to be verified and cross-checked with other records to weed out the doubles. Hill told Smith he’d need help, and sent him to the Park Service.
At the time, Park Service officials were just getting started on a database of Civil War soldiers and planned to do the very work Smith needed. Smith convinced them to start with the USCT. But checking and double-checking more than 200,000 names took months of work, which only added to delays with construction. “The names business turned out to be a little more difficult than we expected,” says Smith.
U Street has had a hard life. Once the epicenter of African-American culture in the District, the area was decimated by riots in 1968, when King’s assassination sent people violently to the streets. Merchants who didn’t flee tried to rebuild in the years following, but they faced another setback when Metro started construction of a Green Line stop in the heart of the area in the 1980s.
“What the riots didn’t do to tear up U Street, the Metro finished,” says Smith.
The area was still struggling to rebound from the Metro damage when Smith came up with the idea for a memorial in 1991. Smith thought it was high time for a payback and lobbied Metro board members to fund the project. The board demurred at first, says Smith, but agreed to pay $26,000 for preliminary architectural drawings in 1993, according to minutes of a board meeting at the time.
Later that year, when its debt refinancing yielded more than $60 million, Metro came up with $1 million to transfer to the District government, says Tony Rachal, a former board member. Smith convinced his council colleagues to support the transfer of funds to his project. The memorial, he promised, would help to rejuvenate the area by bringing in hordes of tourists who would linger on U Street, dropping cash on local businesses. “I looked at this as a magnet,” Smith says.
Many longtime residents of the neighborhood thought it was a pretty far-fetched idea. Would tourists—most of whom are white and clueless about blacks’ role in the Civil War—leave the familiar cow path of the Mall and schlep all the way out to Shaw to see a memorial?
So far, the memorial hasn’t yielded anything other than the occasional construction worker in search of something cool to drink, say many local neighbors and businesses. Smith says about 200 to 300 visitors come to the site daily. But inquiries at businesses along U Street are met with confused looks from owners, who say they’ve seen few visitors and have stopped waiting for them to come. Tefera Zewdie, manager of Dukem Ethiopian Market & Restaurant on 11th and U Streets, shrugs and says tourists may occasionally wander in, looking for lunch for the kids, but usually don’t find quite what they’re expecting. “They get a little disoriented by the food,” says Zewdie. “Maybe they buy a soda or something.”
Endless construction has only made things worse for those U Street businesses, deterring potential visitors and developers, says Terry Lynch. “Economic development is a snowball effect,” says Lynch. “Every time a project like that slows, there’s a ripple effect on everything else.”
Construction has carried on so long, local business owners say they’ve stopped expecting an upswing. Pocahontas Outlaw simply shakes her head when asked about the new memorial. She and husband William Outlaw have been running Outlaw’s Kitchen on U Street for the last 15 years. Business has always been too slow, says Outlaw. She was hopeful that things would change with the memorial, but so far, nothing. “Most tourists jump off the bus, look at it, then jump back on,” she says. “I don’t think it’s going to help at all.”
At about 10 o’clock on a Wednesday morning, I arrive at the site of the African-American Civil War Memorial. It’s a sunny day in August, prime tourist time in this city, and I’ve come to see some of the 200 to 300 visitors Smith says throng daily to the place. So far, I’m joined by only a couple of construction workers, who toil away on a project that was supposed to be done three years ago. I settle down on a concrete wall, confident visitors will come soon.
The first group shows up at 10:10—only it’s not a tour headed to the memorial. It’s a group of about a dozen young kids, apparently part of some preschool group, because they all have a grip on one long rope held at both ends by supervising adults. One kid shows a passing interest in the memorial: “What they doin’?” he asks quietly, when he eyes the construction workers.
But the group seems more intrigued by a pair of tennis shoes abandoned on the walkway. “Shoes!” they all squeal. “Look at the shoes!” They’re equally interested in me. “It’s a girl!” yells one. “She’s wearing girl shoes.” As they pass by me in one slow toddler chain, each pauses to show me how they’re learning to snap their fingers. They’ve forgotten the memorial entirely.
They’re kids, so you wouldn’t expect them to be enthralled by a mound of stone and steel. But they’re not the only ones uninterested by the memorial site. Plenty of people pass by the square as I sit and watch. Few give the memorial more than a passing glance. They’ve gotten used to walking through a construction site on the way to the Metro.
At 10:25, a man stumbles over to the memorial, and I think he’s on the way to check out the progress on the stone walls. He stops in the middle of the square, though, when the 40 he has concealed in a brown paper bag begins to fizz over. He heads my way. “Hot out today,” he says as he sits next to me. “Beer and water, the only things that keep you cool.”
He’s the only entertainment, aside from the construction workers, in the square, so I continue to listen. He pours the beer into a paper cup and tells me how you have to be careful when you have liquor out in public; police will fine you $25 every time they catch you with it. He’s paid $75 so far this year. Even worse, he says, they’ll make you pour it out. He also tells me how he plans to entrap some police officers he’s seen drinking beer at softball games down on the “Eclipse.” “You got to fight back,” he says, before hurrying off when a couple of security guards head our way.
So I’m back staring at the empty square, waiting for visitors. I find myself looking up expectantly every time someone walks by, swiveling my head in the direction of U Street when I hear a bus brake, expecting a tour group. Metrobuses, every one.
At 11:06, a middle-aged black man steps out of a cab. Dressed in shorts and a baseball cap, he carries a camera. Bingo, I think. This guy’s got to be coming to the memorial. He walks toward me, careens a bit in the direction of the site, but then makes a sharp right to the Metro escalators. He’s quickly swallowed by the District underworld.
At 11:15, the collection of kids passes by again. It’s the biggest group I’ll see all day. At 11:30, I leave to make a few phone calls at a pay phone across the street, where I can keep an eye on the place to see if anyone comes. Nobody does. By the time I return, a security guard on a cigarette break is looking over the newly installed plates as he smokes. Counting him, the number of visitors I’ve seen in the hour and 40 minutes I’ve been there is exactly one.
Finally, at 12:29, more than two-and-a-half hours after my arrival, a young black man with a camera emerges from the Metro opening, headed straight for the memorial. He circles around the statue, snapping a few shots. But he heads off pretty quickly. I stop him on his way out. As it turns out, he has no particular interest in the memorial—just an amateur photographer out in Shaw to take some pictures. He’s not impressed with the memorial. “Maybe they could put up a fountain,” he says.
It’s a sad sight, really. Not the memorial, which is really quite nice—small, but elegantly done, with the Spirit of Freedom impressive in the middle. What’s sad is a city that waits until the 1990s to start building a national memorial to 1860s black Americans, then spends eight years tinkering away without finishing it. No wonder people have lost interest in the meantime, and once-grateful relatives feel wronged.
I start to pack up my things, more than three hours after I’ve arrived. As I do, Smith sidles into the square with friendly greetings. He looks hopefully at the monument. While we talk, he asks me how many people I’ve seen visit since I’ve been there. “A couple,” I manage to say.
He looks in the direction of the memorial—no doubt envisioning the final project in all its glory. “Yeah, we’ve had some complaints about how long it’s taking,” he says. “But I think we’ve got it together now.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.