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First in a Long Line of Patriots

Monuments: A foundation is trying to raise $10 million to honor blacks who fought in the Revolutionary War--heroes few remember, organizers say.

March 04, 1997|By JANET KINOSIAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"In the worst moments," says Wayne Smith, president of the Black Patriots Foundation, "I say to myself, this has to get made. Because," he adds philosophically, "history needs it."

Congress in 1986 passed legislation authorizing the Black Revolutionary War Patriots Memorial to honor the 5,000 black soldiers and sailors who fought for Colonial America's freedom--and their own--but its fate hinges on the success of fund-raising efforts. At a time when the depth and breadth of African American military sacrifice is being belatedly recognized (President Clinton recently honored seven black men, six posthumously, with the Medal of Honor for distinguished World War II service), the project takes on particular poignancy.

Long left out of history books, blacks played a significant role in the Revolutionary War, starting with Crispus Attucks, the first American casualty, who died in the Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770--227 years ago Wednesday.

Plans call for erecting a 90-foot-long bronze sculpture depicting 63 men, women and children, slaves and freemen, slated for one of the last spots in Constitution Gardens, 300 yards east of the Vietnam Memorial. Two curving and rising walls would form a dramatic below-grade plaza.

Like every other new memorial and museum in Washington--and there are many, including the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Korean War Memorial--the law states that in exchange for federal land, federal dollars cannot be used for funding.

This has posed a stumbling block for the foundation, which so far has raised $3 million of the $10 million needed before work on the site can begin. The U.S. Mint will strike 500,000 commemorative coins next January to help raise an additional $5 million. Two deadlines have already been extended; the new one is October 1998, when the land would have to be forfeited.

The vast emotional impact of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, opened in 1982 and the first large-scale memorial erected in the capital for decades, prompted approval for a long list of memorials. "The impulse to memorialize is ancient, as old as the Druids," says Smith, a Vietnam combat medic who lives in suburban Washington. "In this country, it tends to be around war themes, and that's OK. But it's not really about bravado; it's about remembrance, history, education and symbols. Sadly, black people in this country have few such symbols and icons."

George Washington initially rejected the idea of black freemen joining the Continental Army, until British officers recruited large numbers of slaves. When Washington crossed the Delaware, two black soldiers were at the oars.

Some states, such as Massachusetts and Rhode Island, had all-black units, but most blacks served in integrated units. They fought in the Continental Army and Navy as ship pilots, blacksmiths, teamsters and spies.

Ed Dwight, a former Air Force pilot and the first black trainee in NASA's astronaut program, hopes the statue and memorial he's designed will make some people--particularly children--think about how this country became free.

Dwight, who has created some 55 monuments and memorials to important African Americans, says the knowledge black children have about their history is appalling. He contends that when he speaks to youngsters--black and non-black--across the country, "most do not even know who Dr. (Martin Luther) King is. But show them a picture of Michael Jordan, forget it, no competition."

Fund-raising has been an uphill battle. "By far, this is the most difficult $10 million I've ever had to raise," says Bill Brooks, vice president of corporate affairs for General Motors, which has pledged $1.5 million. He speculates it's partly because of disinterest in history. "But to me, that attitude just makes the memorial even more relevant."

"And that's why this memorial must be there," pleads actor Ossie Davis, co-chairman of the group's leadership committee. At a recent Los Angeles fund-raising reception, he said in his throaty baritone: "For our black youth, particularly our lost young black men, this fact that our familial blood helped free this country means this land is ours, too. Every bit of it. It's tremendously important."

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Other Memorials in the Planning

Here are the nine other memorial projects authorized by Congress in and around Washington, D.C., either under construction or still seeking funds:

* Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial Park

* George Mason Memorial

* The National Peace Garden

* Women in Military Service for America

* Memorial to African Americans Who Served With Union Forces in the Civil War

* Memorial to Japanese American Patriots

* Memorial to Thomas Paine

* World War II Memorial

* Air Force Memorial

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For More About Black Patriots . . .

For more information about the role of black soldiers in the American Revolution, consult:

* "The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution," by Sindey and Emma Kaplan. (University of Massachusetts Press, 1989).

* "Black Courage 1775-1783" (The National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, 1984).

* "Black Yankees," by William D. Piersen (University of Massachusetts Press, 1988).

* "The Negro in the American Revolution," by Benjamin Quarles (Norton, 1973).

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