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February 4, 2008

Learn forgotten histories of black soldiers

Mike Rowley

When you think of an Iowan who was in the Civil War, what do you see? Do you see a young private, a somewhat emaciated man, with perhaps tinted cheeks on an old tintype? Perhaps you see an officer astride his horse on the Capitol grounds memorial.

When you think of a Revolutionary War solider, what do you see? A snow-covered man with a tricorn hat and a blue colonial-style coat with red facings and cuffs? If you are a history buff, you may even hear soldiers with English, Irish or German accents. It is unlikely that you visualized a black man.

This is one reason why in 2008 we may still need a Black History Month. The countless stories and histories of tens of thousands of African-American soldiers from both the Civil War and the Revolutionary War continue to remain untold.

When was the last time you saw a Civil War monument in Iowa that depicted an African-American? How many Iowans are aware of the service record of Cato Mead, the Revolutionary War veteran and African-American whose grave is in Montrose, Iowa?

It takes more than renaming a street from some nearly forgotten president - Quick, what does W.G. stand for in W.G. Harding? (Warren Gamaliel) - to a civil-rights leader (M.L. King).

Tip O'Neill used to say, "All politics are local." The same could be said for history.

The next time you are driving past Woodland Cemetery, glance over at the Grand Army of the Republic section and think of Henry Tolliver, who is buried there alongside his white compatriots. Henry enlisted at the age of 21 into Company D, 60th U.S. Colored Infantry. He was born to a mother who was a slave and, after moving to Iowa, served as an officer in the Kinsman GAR post.

Think of Samuel Davis, another black soldier buried in the same plot. He enlisted in Company E of the 68th U.S. Colored Regiment.

Think of James Daniel Gardner, a black Civil War soldier who was issued the Medal of Honor and is buried at Calvary Cemetery in Ottumwa.

Sixteen years ago, when my oldest son was in kindergarten, he came home after a Black History Month presentation at school and asked if we knew any African-Americans. The question caught me by surprise.

Dr. Kevin Moore, an African-American, lived two houses down from us and spoke to my sons in the neighborhood almost daily. Stanley Thomas, also a kindergartner and African-American, lived across the street and was a frequent friend in our home. My 5-year-old did not see the color or the bias of others; he saw only his neighbor and friend.

As long as the rest of the nation refers to Iowa as a "snow white" state and is shocked that we could vote for a black candidate in our most recent caucus, then we must continue to preserve and share the history of all Iowans.

If it means that in 2008, we still need a Black History Month, then so be it.

MIKE ROWLEY of Clive is president of the Iowa Society of the Sons of the American Revolution and secretary of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, Dodge Camp #75.

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