Memorial for black Revolutionary War soldiers finds spot on Mall after 30 years

Oct 17, 2014
In The News

Maurice Barboza’s idea to build a memorial to black Revolutionary War soldiers on the Mall was sparked by the end of another struggle: the campaign by Barboza’s aunt to be the second black member of the Daughters of the American Revolution in modern times. She won.

That was 1984. Over the next 30 years, Barboza, inspired by his aunt’s tenacity, patiently shepherded the idea of a “black Patriots memorial” through the stages of historical research, development of a monument and then congressional legislation. The longtime Alexandria resident even sold his house to raise money and focus on the project.

And now, he may have won.

Last month, Congress unanimously authorized a site for the memorial: the northeast corner of 14th Street and Independence Avenue, a main gateway to the city, in what is currently a surface parking lot next to the Department of Agriculture. And on Sept. 26, President Obama signed the authorization into law. The National Liberty Memorial was formally approved for placement on the Mall.

“It’s been a long struggle,” Barboza said. “Each step of the way was met with resistance. I’m just so gratified that so many people have bought into this, and it’s given me a great deal of peace to move forward and create a great memorial.”

A proposed statue for the National Liberty Memorial, honoring the African American soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War, sculpted by artist David Newton of Dallas. (Michael Curtis)

Barboza’s mission is to raise awareness about the role of African Americans in the Revolutionary War. At least 5,000 black soldiers, and possibly as many as 10,000, fought for independence from the British. Some were free and many were slaves, Barboza said, some enticed with false promises of their own freedom.

The efforts to document the black soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War were a result of the legal battle by his aunt, Lena Santos Ferguson, to join the DAR, and the group eventually compiled a vast volume of more than 6,600 African Americans, American Indians and those of mixed heritage who supported the fight for independence, called “Forgotten Patriots.”

But Barboza’s mission is far from done. Supporters of the National Liberty Memorial must raise at least $6 million to fund the memorial’s design and construction. And then they have to earn the approval of the National Capital Planning Commission and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.

The effort got a powerful shot in the arm when, while searching for possible sites, the National Park Service last year suggested the strip of land along 14th next to the USDA. It hadn’t been on the group’s radar, and Barboza was ecstatic. “This is exactly what our criteria for the site tried to achieve,” he said. “Proximity and sight lines to historic landmarks.”

As a visitor would face 14th from the proposed memorial, the Washington Monument will rise behind it, as will the forthcoming National Museum of African American History and Culture. “All of which is particularly inspiring,” said project architect Arthur Lohsen, “because these soldiers fought for General Washington. And then the connection to the Agriculture Department, and the [planned] national People’s Garden there. Many of these slaves were working the fields, put down their hoes and picked up their rifles.”

It was a chance meeting between Barboza and sculptor Michael Curtis, in Curtis’s Alexandria art gallery in 2000, that connected Barboza with the architects and the sculptor who helped reenergize the project. Barboza had launched the project with an initial burst of success, with authorizing legislation for the Black Revolutionary War Patriots Memorial first signed by President Reagan in 1984 and a site reserved near Constitution Gardens.

But the Black Patriots Foundation, created by Barboza and his aunt, grew disorganized and dissolved, while the DAR project to identify black soldiers languished. Barboza publicly lobbied the DAR to continue its research, and a chance encounter with then-Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) got him a meeting that led to sponsors for new legislation, including Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Charles E. Grassley (R) of Iowa, where schoolchildren had raised money for the memorial in the 1990s.

Barboza, a Rutgers law graduate, had worked on the Hill for Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) in the 1970s and was familiar with the legislative process. Along with sponsors in the House such as Reps. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) and the late Donald Payne (D-N.J.), a bill to reauthorize the memorial and find a specific site began working its way through Congress.

Meanwhile, Barboza’s visit to Curtis’s gallery exposed him to the work of sculptor David Newton, a former student of Curtis’s. Curtis introduced the two, thinking that Newton probably would create something that was “sympathetic to Washington’s classical heritage.”

After meeting with Barboza, Newton said he crafted a maquette, or scale model, of “a family man who was making the decision to fight for the country’s liberty and hopefully his, too. The young drummer boy was kind of the future, and how life would be different than his father’s, based on what his father’s about to do.”

A bill reauthorizing a memorial for black Revolutionary War soldiers passed Congress in late 2012, and was signed by the president in January 2013. But the search for a site was still meandering around the city until the Park Service suggested incorporating the memorial into a planned People’s Garden on the north and east sides of the Jamie L. Whitten USDA building.

Congress approved with no dissenting votes last month, and the president signed House Joint Resolution 120 into law.

“The role of Americans of African descent who served during the American Revolution is too little understood,” Grassley said this week. “The memorial will help turn this around.”

But no federal money can be used for the project, and it is only authorized until 2019. So while General Services Administration officials said they will help push the memorial through its next administrative hurdles, Barboza and the project’s backers must raise the money. Barboza said donors can contribute to the nonprofit fund through the “Donate” button on the National Liberty Memorial Web site.