By Ana Radelat
One of the few accomplishments of a “do nothing” Congress may be to help a Connecticut man who for decades has tried to win recognition of the Revolutionary War’s black soldiers.
The Senate approved a bill this week that would authorize $631 billion in Pentagon spending for a vast array of purposes — and it would approve the transfer of federal land in the heart of Washington D.C. toa group that wants to build a new memorial to black Revolutionary War soldiers and sailors.
The memorial amendment was sponsored by Sens. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.
“This would not be a memorial to individuals or to color, but to the concept of freedom,” said Plainville native Maurice Barboza, founder of Liberty Fund D.C.
Barboza’s campaign to honor more than 5,000 slaves and freed blacks who helped the United States win independence from Great Britain is a long story of tenacity, politics, race and betrayal.
Maurice Barboza, left, of Plainville, watches as Mayor Bill Euille of Alexandria, Va., signs that city’s resolution concerning its black Revolutionary War fighters.
Most of those who would be honored came from New England, and at least 820 from Connecticut.
Barboza’s quest began in 1978 when he went to the National Archives to look up information on a great, great grandfather who fought in the Civil War. As he conducted his research, Barboza, who is African American, discovered he had another ancestor who fought in the Revolutionary War.
Armed with this information, Barboza went to his aunt, who also lived in Plainville, to persuade her to join the Daughters of the American Revolution.
His aunt, Lina Santos Ferguson, was hesitant to join the DAR because in 1939 the organization had barred black contralto Marian Anderson from singing in their hall.
“I said, ‘This is 1980, not 1939,’” Barboza told his aunt.
Nevertheless, it took four years, the threat of a lawsuit and a front page story in the Washington Post before Barboza’s aunt received her DAR membership.
As part of a settlement, the DAR was required to identify all black soldiers and sailors who helped in the fight for independence.
That information prompted Barboza to lobby the towns to honor their black patriots and to try to find a way to erect a monument to them in Washington.
Former Rep. Nancy Johnson, a Republican whose congressional district included Plainville, was the first lawmaker to sponsor a bill for the memorial.
It was similar to the legislation approved by the Senate Tuesday that would permit building the memorial near, but not on, Washington’s Monument Mall because there has been a moratorium on new construction there since 2003. The bill stipulates that no federal funds will be used to build the memorial.
“The Senate has taken a key step toward honoring the more than 5,000 African Americans who fought for the United States during the Revolutionary War,” Lieberman said. “It is well past time to acknowledge their sacrifice. I will work to secure this provision’s inclusion in the final version of the bill.”
The Senate defense authorization bill must be reconciled with a House bill approved in May that does not contain the black soldier memorial provision.
Barboza said he’s hopeful the memorial amendment will be included in a final bill.
But he’s been disappointed before.
The House and Senate approved Johnson’s bill in 1992. Land was allocated, $1 million raised, and a design for the memorial approved. Then another organization took over the project, forcing Barboza out. The new organization failed to meet a three-year deadline to break ground on the memorial.
“Because of mismanagement, the opportunity was squandered,” Barboza said.
He began his efforts all over again in 2005, with the help of former Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn. But the legislation Dodd sponsored was attached to a national parks bill that failed to move in three Congresses.
“But I’m optimistic it’s going to be done now,” Barboza said.
While thousands of black soldiers and sailors fought for U.S. independence, many slaves fought with British forces who offered them freedom.
“They fought for the side that would give them the best deal,” Barboza said.
And, ironically, Barboza’s Revolutionary War forefather was not black, but white. Barboza descends from a white great grandfather who married a black woman more than 100 years after the Revolutionary War.
But that doesn’t matter, Barboza said.
Besides, he added, the United States’ convoluted racial history means many white people may uncover black ancestors who fought in the Revolutionary War.
Meanwhile, 17 Connecticut cities and towns, including Plainville, West Hartford, Litchfield and Lyme, have approved resolutions honoring black fighters of the War of Independence.