When our nation--and Southern Maryland--were painfully divided by the Civil War, nearly 700 African-American residents of St. Mary's County served in the United States Colored Troops. Of those men, two were awarded the Medal of Honor. Pvt. William H. Barnes and Sgt. James H. Harris were awarded the nation's highest honor for their gallantry in the Battle of Chaffin's Farm, also known as the Battle of New Market Heights (Sept. 1864) in Varina, Henrico County, Va.
As we near the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, St. Mary's County has reason to again be proud: Sgt. Harris, Pvt. Barnes and all the African-Americans who joined the United States Colored Troops to fight for the Union and for their own freedom are being recognized. The Unified Committee for Afro-American Contributions, after years of fundraising, political action and other community efforts, broke ground on the United States Colored Troops Memorial on March 4. The memorial, located on land donated by St. Mary's County at John G. Lancaster Park in Lexington Park, is designed by nationally recognized sculptor Gary Casteel. The monument is estimated to cost more than $200,000 in State of Maryland bond bill funding and matching private donations.
"By erecting this monument we will educate the citizenry," said Dr. Janice Walthour, in her remarks on the history of the USCT and the monument. "The lives of these American heroes will have the full recognition they deserve."
Idolia Shubrooks has been working for that recognition for the past 20 years, since finding her own grandfather's muster papers for the USCT in the attic of her family home. That discovery led her to work toward building the USCT Memorial.
"I answered the call of Idolia Shubrooks," said State Senator Roy P. Dyson (D-Dist. 29) "In the Maryland Black History course I took, this never, ever was mentioned. I had to have that great historian, Idolia Shubrooks, come to my office and tell me a little about St. Mary's County history. At the Archives, there was very little information about this point in our Maryland history, but it's there now. In just a few months, this memorial will be a part of that."
St. Mary's County Commissioner President Francis "Jack" Russell called Shubrooks, "Madame Mover and Shaker from the South," in his remarks at the groundbreaking. "It is behooving of all of us people (to build this monument). It's a great idea, a great thing for community effort," Russell said.
NAS Patuxent River Executive Officer Capt. Ben Shevchuk spoke at the groundbreaking, praising African-Americans, "who answered their country's call." Shevchuk read from a letter sent by a USCT soldier and former slave to his wife, during the war, in which he said he was fighting for a future of freedom for himself, for her, and for all. "To reach that future required great sacrifice," Shevchuk said.
Work on the monument will begin soon.