With a fife and drum band playing Yankee Doodle and civil war re-enactors sweltering in the summer sun, a museum honoring the contribution of African Americans in the US Civil War moved into its new home in Washington this week.
"It is finally finished, a great new 5,000 square foot (465 square meters) African American Civil War Museum," Frank Smith, the director of the museum, said at a ceremony to install it in its new home overlooking a square housing a memorial to black Civil War soldiers.
The inauguration ceremony came as the United States marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, the bloodiest conflict in the country’s history.
More than 500,000 people were killed in the war, in which the north, or Union, and south battled over states’ rights and slavery.
Fighting began April 12, 1861, with an attack on Fort Sumter in South Carolina.
Two years later, the first unit of black soldiers recruited in the north fought in a battle for Fort Wagner in South Carolina.
The battle took place on July 18, 1863 — 148 years to the day of the ceremony on Monday preserving the memory of fighters like the 54th Massachusetts infantry in a new, state-of-the-art museum.
The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry suffered heavy losses in the assault on the key fort. Its white commander, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, and dozens of rank and file soldiers died, alongside several hundred other Union troops.
On Monday, a dozen African American men wearing the wool coats of Civil War soldiers from the north stood to attention outside the museum’s new home, sweltering in the heat and humidity that are a hallmark of Washington summers.
Alongside them, women re-enactors of the 19th-century era wore bustles under their skirts and carried parasols. A fife and drum band played "Yankee Doodle" as a color guard led the way a few hundred feet from the square to the new museum.
"This is a grand event, wonderful, just grand," said Helen Hassell, who was portraying Mary Peake, an African American schoolteacher, born around 1823 in Virginia, a southern state that allowed slavery.
The museum aims to use historic documents, photographs, exhibits and oral histories to tell the stories of more than 200,000 African Americans who fought in the Civil War and their descendants, who 50 years ago launched the US civil rights movement.
"This museum will show us and teach us history the way it really happened, not the way it’s portrayed in the movies," Hassell said.
"With a few exceptions, films about the civil war never show black soldiers. And yet President Lincoln said that had it not been for colored troops, the north would not have won the war."
According to museum historians, Civil War era president Abraham Lincoln initially refused to allow blacks to fight, "until it became clear the Union would not be preserved without the aid of the black soldier."
"On May 22, 1863, the Bureau of US Colored Troops was established to recruit, train, outfit and deploy what would become a force of 200,000 African American soldiers," a museum handout says.
Americans elected their first African American president, Barack Obama, in 2008 — 145 years after blacks fought in the Civil War to keep the country united and around 50 years since the start of the civil rights movement.
"We’ve come a long way, yes, we have," Hassell said, as the fife and drum band — made up of a black man, a white woman and a Latino — finished a stirring rendition of the US national anthem, the Star Spangled Banner.