At a time when the country is witnessing attempts at erasing entire chapters of American history, these individuals are seeking to embody narratives in a literal way.

WASHINGTON — It’s a bright, balmy February day, and a young man dressed in Civil War regalia cuts a dashing figure while striding down U Street, the historic epicenter of Black arts, culture and heritage in the nation’s capital. 

Marquett Milton is clad in a replica of a Union Army uniform, complete with a navy wool sack coat, light-blue pants and a kepi cap covering his locs. While his 19th-century attire elicits a few quizzical looks from passersby, it’s clear from Milton’s swagger that he is proud.  

He is among a cadre of interpreters and re-enactors across the country — some professionals, others amateurs — who are illuminating people, places and events from the past through a Black lens. At a time when the country is witnessing attempts at erasing entire chapters of American history — whether banning books or deploying revisionist history — these individuals are seeking to embody narratives in a literal way.

“I love talking about history,” said Milton, a staffer at the African American Civil War Museum in Washington, D.C., dedicated to the more than 200,000 United States Colored Troops (USCT) who served the Union Army and Navy during the Civil War, many of them sacrificing their lives to unite the country after 11 Southern states seceded over slavery.

Marquett Milton, 32, spends his days in a replica of a Union Army uniform, educating visitors at the African American Civil War Museum in Washington, D.C., and the nearby war memorial.African American Civil War Museum

“I first learned about these heroes when my high school teacher showed our class the film ‘Glory,’” the 32-year-old recalled. “After that, I tried to learn all I could. And now I’m educating others.”

Typically, Milton spends his workday in uniform, giving presentations to school kids and tourists about the USCT. While in character, he highlights the valor of such men as Corporal Andrew Green, who enlisted after gaining freedom under Washington, D.C.’s 1862 Compensated Emancipation Act

Along with Milton’s presentations, the museum is home to other personal histories, artifacts and documents, drawing nearly a quarter of a million visitors annually, said Frank Smith, Jr., founding director of the African American Civil War Memorial Freedom Foundation. The space is currently undergoing an $8 million renovation, but when it reopens (scheduled for October 2024), visitors will be able to take in several new exhibits and conduct research into whether their own relatives served in the war.

“At a time when America is debating the great values of democracy, it could not be a better time to fully understand the importance of the U.S. Colored Troops,” Smith said. “They sought freedom, and in doing so, helped to unite a divided country.”

With the museum temporarily closed, Milton spends his days across the street at the African American Civil War Memorial, the museum’s sister site. A gleaming 9-foot bronze statue by artist Ed Hamilton, “The Spirit of Freedom,” depicts USCT soldiers and sailors. It’s encircled by a Wall of Honor that lists all 209,145 troops and their regiments. 

Here, Milton encounters tourists and locals alike, fielding questions and snapping photos. He relishes his role as an interpreter of history. 

“These are American heroes, this is American history,” he said. “I’m happy that I get to share it.” 

About 80 miles to the east of D.C. is the small town of Easton, a picturesque seaside community founded in 1790 on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Inside the Avalon Theatre, a historic venue that’s been beautifully restored to its art deco grandeur, live jazz fills the air as folks settle into their seats. 

The occasion is the birthday celebration for Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, better known as Frederick Douglass. He was born in Talbot County, Maryland, circa 1818. 

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