Group gathers in Allegheny Cemetery to honor black Civil War veterans
Jeffrey Burton, portraying Major Martin R. Delaney of the 104th USCT (U.S. Colored Troops) and the first black field officer in the Civil War, walks through Allegheny Cemetery in Lawrenceville on Sunday looking for USCT soldiers' graves to honor them with a flag.
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A native of Harding, Ky., Horace Harris French was sworn into the Union Army in 1863. One of more than 180,000 African-American soldiers who fought for the North during the Civil War, he served until the war's end, then settled in Pittsburgh's Hill District. History knows little else about his life. He died in 1899.
Today, French is buried above a fork in a road in Lawrenceville's Allegheny Cemetery. A flat tablet patched with dirt marks his grave.
"The acid rain and weather has marred it to the point where it can hardly be read," said Andrew Masich, president of the Heinz History Center, standing over the burial site Sunday.
Local African-American veterans and officials from the History Center gathered at the cemetery Sunday to honor more than 100 Civil War-era African-American soldiers who are buried there.
Mr. Masich said the men, called U.S. Colored Troops, are "forgotten heroes." Fighting for a place where they were treated as the lowliest of citizens, many met harsh discrimination after their service, too.
"These men went before us and laid the pathway which we are still treading on," said Staff Sergeant Michael E. Flournoy, an African-American Vietnam War veteran and a readjustment counselor for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Despite the morning's steady rain, about 30 people gathered to watch and participate in the event. Among them were numerous African-American veterans who had served during World War II, the Korean War or the Vietnam War.
"Almost every male in my family has military service," said Senior Master Sergeant Timothy W. McCray, 81, of Penn Hills, who served in the Air Force from 1950 to 1977.
"I'm glad I came, very," said Sergeant First Class Nathaniel Young, 81, of East Liberty, who served in the Army during the Korean War. "I've learned a lot as a result of being here."
During the ceremony, a drum corps of young men beat out Civil War-era cadences. A group of African-American Vietnam War veterans laid a wreath on the cemetery's Veterans Memorial. And John Brewer, a member of the History Center's African-American Advisory Council, spoke about African-American soldiers who served on the side of the Confederacy.
"Just imagine that your whole world is turned upside down," Mr. Brewer said. "When the war took place, people had to make choices. Many African Americans made choices for self-preservation."
The event was part of a statewide initiative to recognize the grave sites of U.S. Colored Troops.
"We really want to find out what their names are, where they lived, who their families are," said Samuel Black, curator of the History Center's African-American collections. "It's a very challenging project."
Local genealogist Marlene Bransom said the graves of U.S. Colored Troops are scattered across the region.
"Some have incorrect markers, toppled headstones," she said. "As historians, genealogists and preservationists, we must not allow this to continue."
Mr. Masich said as many as 200 U.S. Colored Troops might be buried in Allegheny Cemetery; so far, the Heinz History Center has identified more than 130 of them. After the ceremony Sunday, history center staff urged people to mark their graves with American flags.
Kneeling in the grass, Mr. Masich brushed dirt off one tablet, revealing a worn "1890."
When evening light rakes across the tablets, some names are just barely visible.
"Someday, I would hope we could get bronze markers that could last 1,000 years," he said.
First Published November 15, 2010 12:00 am