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Civil War Reenactor Keeps History of U.S. Colored Troops Alive

African Americans relive their role

AARP empowers you to pursue your goals and dreams - Gloria Estefan


Bernard George has a passion for the past that began when he was a boy learning about his father's rich family history that goes back 300 years in New Bern, N.C. Today, that passion is evident whenever George dons his wool military uniform to participate as a Civil War reenactor.

"I was always interested in the Civil War, particularly as a young lad," says George, 60, a lifelong resident of New Bern and descendant of free African Americans who settled in a North Carolina village. "My grandfather told me that his grandfather fought in the Civil War."

See also: 50 ways the Civil War changed American life.

Mel Reid is an African American civil war reenactor with the Massachusetts 54th Company B.

Mel Reid is a Civil War reenactor with the Massachusetts 54th Company B. — Photo by Miranda Harple

George is among the hundreds of African American reenactors across the country participating in events to commemorate this year's 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. Experts say African American participation in reenactments has increased in the past years due in part to the 1989 Civil War film Glory starring Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman.

"Black soldiers are the most often photographed reenactors, because we are so unusual" to many people, George says.

There are 30,000 to 40,000 Civil War reenactors in the United States, according to Dana Shoaf, editor of Civil War Times. As one of them, George is on a mission to preserve the legacy of the U.S. Colored Troops, the regiments of black soldiers who fought for the Union.

Reconciling history

George was born to Clementine Cooper Brown, a housewife and chef, and Joseph Grayson George, a master brick mason. His father's family came from Harlowe, N.C., a coastal farming and fishing village of free African Americans who moved from Virginia's Tidewater region.

George quickly noticed that the stories he heard at home about his great-great-grandfather fighting in the Union army were quite different from what he was taught in North Carolina's segregated Jim Crow school system. The stories weren't "something I could substantiate in the history books at school," he says.

As a youngster, George devoured works by black authors such as James Baldwin, H. Rap Brown and Frank Yerby. He was further exposed to his ancestors' history as a student at North Carolina Central University, where he studied history and political science.

Next: Portraying historical figures. >>

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