Memorial to Black Soldiers Marking Time Despite July Dedication: Visitors Are Kept Away While Contractors Continue Work
By Linda Wheeler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 15, 1998; Page C05
When the bronze statue of four courageous black Civil War military men was dedicated last month in Shaw, crowds surged forward to caress the honey-colored faces and stroke the rumpled uniforms. Now the 11-foot sculpture is untouchable -- protected by two sets of chain-link fences, one topped with barbed wire.
The monument to the more than 200,000 black Union soldiers and sailors and their 7,000 white officers has a long history of mishaps and delays. Memorial officials went ahead with a four-day dedication beginning on July 15 even though half of the monument was not ready. They said the monument would be completed in time for another dedication on Veterans Day, but this week officials backed away from that date.
In addition, the memorial site at U Street and Vermont Avenue NW currently belongs to the city, not the federal government, as was generally thought, which raises an important issue in determining who has responsibility for maintenance and security of the memorial.
Lyndia Grant, executive director for the African-American Civil War Memorial Freedom Foundation, said the double fences around the sculpture "are to keep the general public out of the construction area. We don't want people to get in."
She said the contractor was concerned about securing materials and the foundation and didn't want anyone to get hurt. Workers still are laying multicolored paving stones for the plaza. Eventually the granite walls and metal plaques with the 208,943 inscribed names of soldiers, sailors and officers will arrive and will have to be protected as well, she said.
Grant said the fences will stay in place until the memorial is completed. The barbed wire was added when someone scaled both fences to get a better picture of the statue, she said.
Ed Smith, an American University history professor who conducts tours of black Washington, said visitors to the memorial are very disappointed to find the barriers. "They can't even get close enough to take pictures," he said.
The foundation is conducting the privately financed, $2.6 million project in partnership with the District government, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, the National Park Service and the National Archives.
The city's Department of Public Works is the general contractor for the memorial. Chief engineer Gary Burch said he had advised Grant to stop announcing the November date because the quarry supplying the cut granite walls isn't expected to meet the shipping date of next week, and he has not been given a new date. Additionally, the 157 plaques won't be inscribed until the National Park Service is sure its list is absolutely accurate, and that effort is taking longer than expected, he said.
Burch said another dedication date should not be set until everything is finished. "We don't want to disappoint anyone again with no plaques," he said. "The foundation and the Park Service and the department agree, let's not put ourselves in the position of having to fulfill a date."
Park Service spokesman Earle Kittleman said the volunteers in charge of proofing the list of names have gone through it four times and continue to find typographical errors and omissions. He said that part of their work was to divide the list as it would appear on each plaque and that every time a change was made, they had to adjust the arrangement of names on other plaques.
"We said we want to have a clean set of proofs for all the panels before we turn them over," he said. "It has to be perfect because we can't go back and do new inscriptions."
The memorial is being built on a triangle of land now bordered by U Street, Vermont Avenue and a row of houses. Until a decade ago, the houses faced a block of Tenth Street NW. When Metro built a station at Tenth and U streets, the city closed that block of Tenth Street and allowed Metro to build its station on the old road bed. The Park Service allowed Metro to locate its air vents in a small, adjoining federal park.
Burch said the city may have never officially closed that part of Tenth Street. He knew the site has not yet been transferred to the federal government. A Park Service official said they are waiting for the city to prepare a plat map as the first step in the transfer process.
"The closing and the transfer have to go forward," Burch said. "It should happen this year."
Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company