NEW BERN – Bernard George dons the blue wool uniform of a U.S. Colored Troops Civil War soldier for re-enactments at historic sites and other venues. June 19th has become an unofficial holiday for many African Americans. On that date in 1865 in Texas , supposedly the last slaves learned the Civil War was over and that they were free. George celebrates the role of African Americans in claiming their freedom every day.
A member of the N.C. African American Heritage Commission (AAHC), New Bern Historical Society, NAACP, and other historical and community groups, George travels the state and eastern U.S. on a mission of education as a Civil War re-enactor. He is one of 10 AAHC commissioners. See
http://news.ncdcr.gov/2011/02/11/african-american-heritage-commission-making-history/ and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=enDULkLaz-I
“We are always the most photographed group at re-enactments; it’s such a well-hidden story of U.S. Colored Troops and sailors during the Civil War,” he observes.
Re-enactors can give a reality to history that the written word can’t, explains Dr. Jeffrey Crow, deputy secretary of the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources and co-author of “A History of African Americans in North Carolina .”
“The im media cy of another living person representing an earlier time allows pe opl e to connect in a way that they can’t with books,” Crow continues. “That is even truer when the recorded history is limited or misunderstood.”
George re-enacts as a member of the N.C. Colored Volunteers, a group recruited in New Bern and part of the First African Brigade. When not re-enacting he is a city planner for New Bern , local historian and community volunteer. As a member of the AAHC, he can help ensure that African American history and culture are appreciated across the state.
The commission’s mission is to preserve, protect and promote North Carolina ’s African American arts, history and culture for all pe opl e. The 2011 Summer Teacher Institute at the N.C. Museum of History will focus use of primary sources to explore African American life and culture, and is being partially supported by the AAHC. For George, interest in this history was stoked years ago.
“My grandfather told me when I was a young boy that his grandfather was a soldier. His grandfather fought for the Union ,” George explains. “I was concerned that this was contradictory to what I had learned in history. But when I went off to college I learned there was a cornucopia of experiences of African Americans during the Civil War.”
Through oral history from his grandfather and father, George learned that his family was free and had come from the Tidewater Virginia area to New Bern about 300 years ago. Documents from the 1700s at the Craven County courthouse further substantiate this history, along with family records. He notes that free blacks in North Carolina were the thesis subject for the eminent historian, John Hope Franklin.
As a Civil War re-enactor, George finds many adults do not know the story of blacks fighting for their freedom in the war and during Reconstruction. Blacks and whites are interested in finding out more at programs at state historic sites or other venues. He says African Americans are particularly drawn to the re-enactors, because most Civil War re-enactors are usually white. When visitors see the U.S. Colored Troops re-enactors, they go home and tell their family and friends and so educate others.
“It is important to talk with and re-educate pe opl e,” George continues. “As more historical research and study is done, we are shifting the paradigm and a more complete truth of American history will be known.”
So whether at a Juneteenth program in Jacksonville on June 18, or at the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial dedication on Aug. 28 in Washington, D.C., George will be upholding the African American Heritage Commission ideal and his own, by protecting and promoting African American history for all people.
The African American Heritage Commission was created by the North Carolina General Assembly to assist the secretary of the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources in the preservation, interpretation and promotion of African American history, arts and culture. The Division of State Historic Sites and the Division of State History Museums are within the Department of Cultural Resources, the state agency dedicated to the promotion and protection of North Carolina ’s arts, history and culture, with info rmation about the Department of Cultural Resources at http://www.ncculture.com/