a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The search for US Colored Troops' graves

Jeff Burton of Rankin, Pa., dressed as a Union Army officer from Pittsburgh, goes in search today of the forgotten graves of black men who served in the Civil War and were buried in Allegheny Cemetery. Please scroll down to watch a short video of a re-enactment by the Soldiers and Sailors Museum Drum an Bugle Corps. (Scott Beveridge photo)

By Scott Beveridge

PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Many children of America's Southern slaves were born free blacks before the Civil War, and surprisingly, some grew to volunteer on the side of the Confederacy, a Pittsburgh historian said today.

Those men needed to protect their jobs in a slave-dependent economy as blacksmiths, carpenters, miners and boatmen when the war to end slavery broke out in 1861, said John Brewer, a member of Sen. John Heinz Regional History Center's black advisory council.

"The Confederate negro served on the other side of the mountain," Brewer said at a service to find and honor the graves in historic Allegheny Cemetery of black veterans who served in the war between the states.

It was a dilemma faced by those southern blacks because their "whole world turned upside down" and they needed to make choices for self preservation, Brewer said.

It's possible a number of them relocated to Pittsburgh after President Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. No doubt some of those black men were also buried in since-forgotten graves in this, the sixth oldest rural cemetery in the United States.

The history center joined with local black veterans groups in a wreath-laying ceremony in the 166-year-old cemetery as part of Pennsylvania-wide efforts to mark the 150th anniversary of the state's role in the war.

Many famous people also were buried in this cemetery once visited by President Ulysses S. Grant, who sat among the Civil War graves and wept, said Andy Masich, the history center's president and chief executive officer.

Industrialists and many Pittsburgh mayors were buried here, as was the godfather of pop music otherwise known as Stephen Foster.

But, the time has come to "honor the forgotten people" who were buried here," Masich said.

This event grew out of efforts by the history center and Pennsylvania's Department of Community and Economic Development and Quest For Freedom project to hold a series of ceremonies over the next four years to mark the war's anniversary, he said.

"The unrecognized role of African American soldiers during the war is an important thing for us to remember," Masich added.

Major Martin Delany was the best-known black veteran of the Civil War to have been buried in the cemetery. Delany was superintendent of the Underground Railroad's western route through Pittsburgh to Canada, and the highest ranking black officer in the war, said Jeff Burton of Rankin, who portrayed the veteran at the service.

It was a challenge for volunteers at the event to locate and mark the 132 graves of known black Civil War veterans who were buried there because so many names had been smoothed over on the small, flat tombstones, Burton said.

While this cemetery at 4734 Butler St. has been well maintained, nearly 100,000 other unmarked, abandoned burial grounds holding the graves of black Civil War veterans have been documented in the United States, said Marlene Bransom of Greene County, a member of the African American Genealogical Society.

Bransom urged members of the small crowed gathered before the massive stone 1937 war memorial overlooking the veterans' graves to get involved in efforts to locate such lost graves to preserve black heritage.

"As historians and preservationists we must not allow this to continue ... so they will know who, what and where we came from," she said. 


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