In a lot of ways, Rock Creek holds the history of America. It's been here from the beginning of our nation, and it has flowed through this land in observance of many defining points in our history. Included in that account are many significant moments in African American history. You can find these compelling stories hidden through the Rock Creek watershed.
Today, in honor of Black History Month we’re highlighting Bryan Cheeseboro, an African American Civil War re-enactor who is on the Board of the Alliance to Preserve Civil War Defenses of Washington and works as an Archives Technician for the National Archives and Records Administration.
Continue reading for his unique perspective Civil War re-enactment and African American history in Rock Creek.
Interview with Bryan Cheeseboro:
How do you like to spend time in Rock Creek?
I grew up just down the street from Rock Creek Park. These days, I most enjoy driving on Rock Creek Parkway, visiting Pierce Mill and the Civil War Round Table at the Rock Creek Nature Center (also a great place to visit).
You don't work directly with Rock Creek Conservancy, but you do work with the Alliance to Preserve Civil War Defenses of Washington. Can you tell us a little bit about that organization and your role in it?
The name is the organization pretty much explains the mission of the group. The APCWDW brings awareness to the public about the 68 forts and 93 batteries that surrounded Washington City and the City of Georgetown, at the time two smaller enclaves inside the District of Columbia. The Alliance has bus tours of the forts throughout the year and also co-hosts Fort Stevens Day, the annual commemoration of the only Civil War battle to take place inside the District of Columbia.
I understand that you do Civil War re-enactments of African American soldiers. Why did you decide to start doing this?
I've been interested in history for as long as I can remember. I can't recall exactly when I discovered reenacting, but I was aware of it before the film "Glory" came out in the late 1980s. I didn't get involved then, but I did attend events as a spectator. In 2004, I got involved, took time off again and then got back in the hobby in 2013. I've had the chance to experience many wonderful things that I could only do as a reenactor. I've shared history with many great people and established many great friendships in this hobby.
Why is it important to tell the stories of these African American men and women?
I believe it's important to tell their stories because they laid the foundation of who we are today. We didn't just get here by accident or chance. And certainly, in the case of African-American history, I think it's important to remember those who fought against enslavement, oppression, and discrimination to gain access to freedom and human rights.
What does it feel like to portray these African American soldiers from the past?
It's a great honor for me to remember the Black soldiers of the Civil War in this portrayal. I'm glad to be a part of a hands-on history and give people a glimpse of the Black Civil War soldier's experiences. It's amazing when you think that those men in a very short time went from enslavement to being enlisted soldiers, literally fighting for their freedom. Or even those who were free before the war and gave up that freedom to go into battle and risk being killed in action; or, as the Confederacy said it would do with Black soldiers, refuse to take them prisoner and instead execute them; or send them South into slavery. So I'm very honored to remember and represent those soldiers who played a vital role in ending slavery and saving the Union from those who wanted to break up this county so they could form a new government with White Supremacy and slavery as its foundation.
Is there a particular story from the Rock Creek area that stands out to you?
On a personal level, I spent a lot of time in Rock Creek Park as a kid, going to the playground with my family and having fun. These days, I most enjoy driving through the park on Rock Creek Parkway. I love the history in the park. I enjoy visiting Pierce Mill and Fort De Russy. During the battle of Fort Stevens in July 1864, the fort fired shots at the invading Confederate army approaching DC from the North. In front of the fort now is a dense forest but apparently, at one time, there was a clear sightline from De Russy to Silver Spring. I can only imagine what the area looked like at that time.
Where is one place that you suggest going if you want to experience African American history in Rock Creek?
I'm learning about Sarah Whitby, an African-American woman who lived in Rock Creek Park from the 1870s to around 1900. Rock Creek Park was established in 1892 but by that time many people, including a number of African-Americans, had been living in the area. I always find it fascinating to learn that "In this place, too, there is Black history."
Why is it essential to protect these historical spaces?
Once you lose a piece of history, be it an artifact, a written document or a historic site, it's gone forever. It cannot be replaced. Unfortunately, everything cannot be saved, but I believe we must work to preserve valuable things from the past for ourselves today and for future generations.
How can our readers support your work and the work of the Alliance to Preserve Civil War Defenses of Washington?
Your readers can visit the Alliance website to learn more about the Civil War forts, many of which still have portions of their remains, which people can visit. There is a link on the site for donations and as I mentioned before, people can take part in our bus tours and the annual Fort Stevens Day, which is July 14 this year and is an all-day event (9-4PM) and will be at the Fort Stevens battle site, 6001 13th St NW, Washington, DC 20011.