WASHINGTON -- Kevin Douglass Greene stood before the bronze sculpture at the center of the new African American Civil War Memorial here yesterday, his eyes brimming with tears.
Ramrod straight, the bright sun glinting off the buttons and decorations on his U.S. Army uniform, the staff sergeant stood soldier to soldier with a piece of his own history.
"To some, it's a statue," the 37-year-old great-great-grandson of abolitionist Frederick Douglass said. "But to me, it's lives standing up there."
The unveiling of sculptor Ed Hamilton's 11-foot-high monument, dedicated to about 200,000 African American soldiers and sailors who fought in the Civil War, brought an emotional reaction from the large crowd that gathered in Washington's Shaw neighborhood, in the shadow of Howard University.
Those assembled for the afternoon dedication of the "Spirit of Freedom" memorial pressed forward to touch the life-size hands of the three soldiers and one sailor on the monument. They had their pictures taken, they embraced each other and clasped hands.
"I touch it and I can actually feel the spirit," said Anderson Pledger, 56, of Washington.
The presentation capped several days of festivities, including lectures on African American history, reenactments, parades and an evening ball. Hundreds of descendants of the men who fought in the Civil War arrived from all over the United States to savor a ceremony that many said was a long time coming -- but not too late.
"We're finally becoming a part of history," said Gerald Baxter, 76, who wore a baby-blue T-shirt that declared he was a descendant of Pvt. John H. Brushwood of the 68th Regiment of the United States Colored Infantry.
Baxter, who traveled from Oakland, Calif., said his mother had passed on to him a copy of Brushwood's discharge papers when she died, but "until recently, we didn't really know what they meant."
For George M. Brown, 75, of Washington, the ceremony was a form of closure. Brown's great-grandfather, James August, was a private during the Civil War.
"This makes us feel that perhaps the sacrifices they made were really meaningful," he said.
Gail Dawson, 33, came up from Tampa, Fla., after tracing her ancestors. During her research she found that her family had two Civil War veterans. Both were her great-grandfathers.
"It's important to know your past in order to know who you are," she said.
That's something children today need to learn, said Joyce Bailey, who brought her two granddaughters to the ceremony. Bailey, who runs the Black Fashion Museum near the monument and was outfitted in a Civil War-era hoop skirt, said history books for too long have ignored the impact of African Americans.
"Our kids are destroying themselves daily," she said. "If we can ground them in a positive history, they'll see they can have a positive future."
Yesterday's events coupled the pomp and ceremony of a military occasion with the hoopla of a festival. There were Civil War mementos and books for sale, and barbecued chicken and hot dogs. At a booth erected by the U.S. Postal Service, visitors lined up for envelopes commemorating the troops.
Sweaty reenactors, stifling in authentic navy-blue wool jackets and carrying muskets, marched through the crowds flanked by women in hoop skirts, bonnets and lace. American flags and red, white and blue bunting draped the plaza. A military band banged and blared, and a boys' choir sang "Lift Every Voice and Sing."
©1998 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.