WASHINGTON (AP) — Most accounts of the Revolutionary War give the impression that America's independence from Britain was won by brave white men.
Maurice Barboza wants to tell the rest of the story.
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He's trying to revive an effort to build the first monument on the National Mall honoring black colonial soldiers — perhaps the most forgotten heroes from the nation's birth.
The project would recognize such people as Crispus Attucks, the first patriot killed in the Boston Massacre, and James Lafayette, a Virginia slave who risked his life to spy on the British and was granted freedom in return.
“They were Americans, and they should be honored,” Barboza says. “They were founders of the country.”
Congress first approved the idea for a memorial honoring enslaved and free black Revolutionary War soldiers and a prominent site for the project more than 20 years ago. But after years of planning, the idea languished due to fundraising and management problems.
Now it's stuck in Washington's bureaucratic maze. The National Park Service wants to enforce a moratorium on any new monuments and museums on the Mall — which Congress established in 2003 to prevent overcrowding. The park service also notes that the original National Mall site for the memorial expired in 2005 with Congress' last authorization of the project.
“The clock ran out,” says Lyle Laverty, an assistant secretary of the Interior who oversees the park service. “It's up to the Congress to reauthorize” that site.
Barboza, a former lobbyist, says the Mall site hasn't been taken by any other project and should still be available because only the memorial's sponsor has changed — not the history. He stressed the importance of honoring black people on the Mall, where they have long been underrepresented, and especially those who “won the freedom of everybody else while they were still slaves.”
Barboza and his aunt, Lena Santos Ferguson, first thought of building a memorial in the 1980s when Ferguson had trouble joining the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Although Ferguson traced her ancestry to a white Revolutionary War soldier, her sponsors said she was denied membership in a Washington chapter because she is black. After a four-year fight that made national headlines, Ferguson was fully admitted to the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1984 with an agreement that the group would examine its openness to black members.
“There may have been other black women before me who got the same type of treatment,” Ferguson told The Associated Press at the time. “And it wasn't public knowledge that blacks served in the Revolution. I thought that if I joined, it would be a reminder.”
Ferguson died in 2004 at the age of 75.
The agreement called for the DAR to research and identify the estimated 5,000 black veterans of the American Revolution. The organization compiled its initial findings in a 2001 book that identified about 1,600 soldiers.
A second volume published in May contains about 6,600 names of black and American Indian veterans. The 900-page book “Forgotten Patriots” provides the most complete research to date and the first documentation of at least 5,000 names of black soldiers. The group estimates it has spent $510,000 on the research since 2005 and continues to add names each year.
The research helped Barboza make the case that more should be done to restore the forgotten history.
President Reagan originally authorized the memorial in 1986, and a group led by Barboza acquired a site between the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument in 1988. A preliminary design was unveiled in 1991. But organizers struggled to raise the $6 million needed to build the project.
Barboza relinquished control, and the private foundation was taken over by others with ties to major donors, including General Motors Corp. Barboza was ousted from the board in 1992.
Since then, money raised to build the memorial seems to have disappeared — including funds raised from a commemorative coin sold by the U.S. Mint in 1998 that depicted the patriot Crispus Attucks. The group disbanded without finishing the project in 2005, when its fourth extension from Congress expired.
“Essentially, the money has kind of vanished in thin air,” said Matt Letourneau, a spokesman for the Republicans on the Senate Energy and Resources Committee, which oversees the park service. He said any renewal of the project should include stronger accounting procedures.
Robert J. Brown, a former co-chairman of the Black Revolutionary War Patriots Foundation, the now-defunct nonprofit behind the memorial, said in an e-mail that the organization had “quite a bit of money” when he resigned around 2002-2003, but he didn't know what happened to the funds after that. Wayne Smith, a former paid staff member who led the project for several years until 2000, said he's concerned about the whereabouts of nearly $1 million raised through the sale of the commemorative coin.
Now Barboza is trying to persuade the National Park Service and Congress to give the memorial another chance.
“Nobody is fussing about whether this is a good monument to have,” said Bill Wicker, a spokesman for Democratic majority on the Senate Energy and Resources Committee. “But as you can well imagine, there's no shortage of organizations that would like to have a presence on the National Mall.”
There could be a loophole, however, in the law that governs construction on the Mall.
When Congress changed the Commemorative Works Act in 2003 to create a moratorium on new memorials, one clause gave an exemption to any “commemorative work for which a site was approved … prior to the date of enactment of this title.”
Barboza said that loophole applied to the black patriots memorial and to a monument honoring Martin Luther King Jr., which is nearing construction. A memorial advisory commission endorsed that reasoning in 2006.
Several high-profile lawmakers are supporting Barboza's effort, in part because the contributions of blacks aren't well represented on the Mall. (The Smithsonian plans to build a black history museum on the Mall by 2015; the King memorial could be completed by 2010.)
Democratic Senators Christopher Dodd and Barack Obama and Republican Senators Charles Grassley and Elizabeth Dole co-sponsored legislation in 2007 to give Barboza's new group — the National Mall Liberty Fund D.C. — seven years to finish building the memorial in the same way it was approved for the Mall in the 1980s. A similar bill in the House has the support of the Congressional Black Caucus, though it's unlikely either measure will make much progress this congressional year.
“This memorial will help to complete the story told on the National Mall of the birth of the nation,” the senators wrote in a May letter to the secretary of the Interior. “Too often, the stories and sacrifices of the black soldiers of the Revolutionary War are relegated to the footnotes of history.”
On the Net:
National Mall Liberty Fund D.C.: http://www.libertyfunddc.org/