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African Americans Reflect on US Civil War

  • Chris Simkins

Black soldiers during the US Civil War

Black soldiers during the US Civil War

The U.S. Civil War began 150 years ago this week and became the deadliest conflict in U.S. history. More than a century later, people are debating the reasons for the war, slavery versus states' rights. Some historians and civil rights leaders suggest the legacies of the Civil War still have an impact on African Americans today.

These are the faces of black soldiers during the American Civil War. They're rare photographs of some of the 200,000 who fought in the Union army against the southern Confederacy. The pictures offer slices of life that many Americans may not be aware of. Stories like that of Adele Logan Alexander 's great grandfather, John Robert Bond. He was born in England in 1846.

"When he was 17 years old, hearing about the struggle for Africans freedom in the United States, the story my mother told me was that he got on a fishing boat and came to Massachusetts because he wanted to help free the slaves," she said.

Adele Alexander is a historian. She says her great grandfather joined the Union navy and was almost killed in a battle.

It's just one of the many facts Alexander uncovered about her family. She says her great grandfather sacrificed to help future generations.

"What a remarkable thing that this boy in England who heard the debate over slavery would disrupt himself from family there and cross an unknown ocean to take this great step in his life and this great step which changed life for him and his descendants," she said.

And that inspired Alexander to write a book about the Bond family post-Civil War.

"Hard line segregation kicks in, and blacks are worse off in many instances than they were in the period immediately after the Civil War during the reconstruction period. Starting in the late 1800s early 1900s, you begin to see the great migration north and this was enormously disruptive to African Americans. This was people who had been a peasant population, who had lived on plantations, were moving into modern industrialized cities and they were very poorly equipped to deal with the challenges of that. In turn that caused new breakups of families, and I think we are still seeing the results of this today," she said.

During her research, Alexander learned more about her grandfather, Warren Logan, born into slavery in Virginia.

"He was born to a woman whose name was Pocahontas who was a slave, possibly of Native American background, and his father was a white man, probably his owner, but like ((African American leader)) Booker T. Washington, he had the opportunity to go to school," she said.

Alexander says the Civil War not only freed the slaves, it empowered African Americans to take control of their lives.

"It has been a long and painful process and I don't think that it is over because I think that we have legacies of racism and economic disparities in our country. But certainly just ending the institution of slavery was enormously important to this country," she said.

Alexander says the Civil War defined the United States as the most multi-racial democracy in the world.

But there's a down side. For example, census data in 2005 show that at least half of African American children were being raised by a single parent.

And black unemployment is at 15.5 percent, almost double the national average.

"The Civil War itself was a part of the great legacy of slavery in this country and we ((African Americans)) still live with that every day," said Benjamin Todd Jealous, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People or NAACP, the nation's oldest civil rights organization.

"The NAACP was founded by Republicans. It's the party of ((President)) Lincoln, and it has a great tradition of inclusion. And in this moment, we would hope that all people in this country, would be using this (( the Civil War anniversary )) as a moment of national reflection about the need for us to reunite ourselves and move beyond old divisions," he said.

While many people share his hopes, others feel much needs to be done before the dreams that evolved after the Civil War become reality.