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Sunday, November 21, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Dispute ends with transfer of black Civil War shrine
By Debbi Wilgoren
WASHINGTON The trees around the African American Civil War Memorial have been trimmed, and the grass is freshly cut and cleared of trash. Several leaks have been fixed. But a few of the 209,145 names of black Union troops, and those of their white officers, engraved on the stainless-steel plaques are still water-damaged.
The National Park Service took over basic upkeep and maintenance of the neglected memorial late last month after signing an agreement transferring control of the site from Washington, D.C., to the federal government. Remaining repairs, Park Service spokesman Bill Line said, will be done on an ongoing basis.
Line said a park ranger knowledgeable about the role of African-Americans soldiers and sailors during the war soon will be stationed at the memorial, in a downtown federal park, Wednesdays through Saturdays at midday, the peak time for pedestrian traffic.
The memorial became embroiled in a dispute over who should care for it soon after its dedication in 1998. Financed by a private foundation and built by the D.C. Department of Public Works, the memorial was supposed to be a gift to the nation. But the National Park Service, charged with maintaining such memorials, wanted the city to address basic repair and maintenance issues before including the site in its portfolio.
City officials refused to repair the memorial until the Park Service set a transfer date; the Park Service said it would not set a date until repairs were done.
After extensive lobbying by Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-Washington, D.C., and Frank Smith, a former D.C. Council member who founded the African American Memorial Freedom Foundation, the city government gave the Park Service $200,000 to do the repairs, and the transfer was arranged.
"We finally just reached the point where there was not a credible excuse anymore for not accepting the memorial," Smith said.
The memorial, which includes a graceful bronze sculpture by Ed Hamilton of three black soldiers and a sailor leaving their tearful families, now is listed on the Park Service's Web site (www.nps.gov).
The memorial is the first in the country to honor all African-American soldiers and sailors, and their white officers, who fought in the Union Army. Smith said he hopes the memorial one day will achieve the prominence of Ford's Theatre and other local Civil War-related sites maintained by the Park Service.
Smith said he would like to invite descendants of some of the soldiers and sailors whose names are inscribed at the memorial, as well as President Bush and his father, who signed legislation that helped create the memorial.
"There's been so much slighting in the past" of black Union soldiers and sailors, Smith said. "We're not going to let them be slighted this time."
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