As you reflect on the successes (and deficiencies) of the Civil Rights movement this Monday, a day that commemorates the life of activist Martin Luther King Jr., you don't have to limit yourself to the 20th century.
One hundred years before King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington D.C., black soldiers were fighting for racial equality in the Civil War.
This weekend, historical re-enactors portraying a New York regiment of the U.S. Colored Troops that fought in the war to end slavery will be stationed at the New York Historical Society to show off their military colors and weaponry, and to share some stories of their battle scars.
We spoke to the co-founder and principal historian of the New York 26th U.S.C.T., Ludger Balan, about his group's origins and goals. Here's what we learned:
1. It was a job in environmental activism that convinced Balan historical costumes were an effective way of connecting people to their pasts.
As executive director at the Urban Divers Estuary Conservancy, which once operated an ecology center on the Harlem River, Balan took on the mission of getting minority Bronx residents interested in the environment.
With natural resources so long managed by a white majority, "It was difficult to build ownership for people who see themselves as second-class citizens," Balan said of the challenge he faced.
His objective was to show non-white New Yorkers their connection to the early history of the area, so he started with the obvious: an annual program on Thanksgiving that highlighted the Native American story.
Soon he drew the connection between the history of the Native Americans and Africans — the two ethnic groups that would fight in New York's colored troops — at the pow wow-like event he coordinated for until the ecology center closed in 2012.
"Giving Thanks — that’s when I first started making people dress up as historical characters to give them a sense of their belonging," said Balan, who hasn't turned back since.
Re-enactors of the New York regiments of the United States Colored Troops march in Richmond, Virginia. Credit: USCT re-enactors.
2. Before Balan founded a local regiment reenactment group, people of color were poorly represented at historical reenactments in New York, he says.
An annual reenactment of the Battle of Brooklyn at Greenwood Cemetery, which commerates a significant colonial victory in the Revolutionary War, showed Balan that local interpreters were predominantly white.
Among its members, "there was this conversation that ... there were no black representatives at any historical things in New York," Balan said, "so as a person who works in social services, I started feeling there was a value to try to build something in New York."
That same year, he founded a collective of black historical interpreters that today comprises 30 reenactors. They tote their muskets and guns at all the big historical battle reenactments, set up historical encampments, make educational presentations, and send off veterans whose families ask them to attend their funerals.
"Our work," said Balan, "is to bring the African heritage in perspective to this American history."
Balan argued that it's too reductive to say that African-Americans have been locked in battle with white America since 1776. He pointed out that they sometimes fought with their white oppressors for a common goal.
3. Balan's group portrays African-Americans who fought in the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Civil War, and World War I, particularly those who trained in New York.
In the case of the Civil War, the reenactors interpret three regiments that trained at military bases on Hart and Rikers' Islands, the 20th, 26th and 31st, as well as the women they loved.
"One of them ended up fighting in the state that was the first to secede and also to fire the first shot," Balan said. That was the 26th, which fought the North's campaign in South Carolina. The regiment lost two officers and 28 enlisted men to the war and 115 soldiers to disease.
Re-enactors of the New York regiments of the United States Colored Troops en route to Richmond, Virginia. Credit: USCT Re-Enactors
But they aren't a faceless pack.
Among their fighters was a man named David Carll, a landowner in Oyster Bay, New York.
"What’s interesting about him is that you can actually trace his entire life before and after the Civil War, because he’s interred on the piece of land he owned ever since …He has living descendants that actually still celebrate him."
His big claim to fame? He's the great-grandfather of actress Vanessa Williams, who learned of their connection on the NBC show "Who Do You Think You Are?"
4. Historical interpretation isn't a cheap hobby.
Dressing one person in full historical accuracy for one particular period costs the whopping sum of $1,800.
Historical re-enactors dressed in Civil War-period costumes. Credit: USCT Re-enactors
"The economics makes it challenging," Balan acknolwedged. Traveling around the country, he realized that black historical reenactors awed African-American audiences but convinced only a limited number of recruits, who were expected to join fully equipped.
So his group now collects money, through such education services as they're providing at the NYHS, to purchase extra costumes and props. They can now suit up 15 volunteers in Revolutionary War dress and seven in Civil War garb.
Other price tags worth mentioning: the average musket replica puts you back $1000, and cannons can go anywhere from $3,000 to $15,000.
Luckily, Balan has 10 years experience as a prop master in the film industry, so he can fabricate items like cannon carriers, rather than buy them.
5. Martin Luther King Jr. may have been all about nonviolent resistance, but that doesn't mean that black soldiers weren't just as invested in the pursuit of racial equality.
“These regiments began our first momentum to solidify our citizenship — there was no turning back from this point," Balan said.
As the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass said in a speech he delivered at the National Hall in Philidelphia during the Civil War, "Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters US, let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth or under the earth which can deny that he has earned the right of citizenship in the United States."
The logical extention of the right to citizenship is the equal civil rights for which King fought.
Of course, the activist wouldn't have paraphrased Douglass words' in quite the way Balan did: "We’re taking ownership of destiny today. We’re going to end slavery and become an American today, and no one will reverse because we’re 200,000 strong with guns in our hands."