Civil War remnants are at every corner and hidden in every crevice in Wilmington, North Carolina. Museums, historic markers, cemeteries and especially statues keep conversations constant about who we should commemorate in our city. They’re especially relevant right now, as we watch protesters nationwide dismantle Confederate Civil War monuments that continue to glorify the enslavement of Black Americans.
While the City of Wilmington temporarily removed two Confederate statues from downtown—as a “public safety hazard” due to protesters surrounding them—Cameron Art Museum (CAM) is looking to erect a monument of Union soldiers who helped free Black slaves in commemoration to the Battle at Forks Road. The project is being created by Durham-based artist Stephen Hayes.
“It has been a dream of ours for a long time to have a contemporary African-American artist create a work of art responding to the United States Colored Troops’ story on the historic Civil War site on our grounds,” deputy director Heather Wilson says. “We are the steward of the Battle of Forks Road site, a significant skirmish that led to the fall of Wilmington.”
The life-sized sculpture will stand 9-feet-by-11-feet-by-3-feet and feature 11 USCT descendants, re-enactors and Black veterans. Corporal Dennis Perkins, Corporal James Perkins, Corporal David Jackson and PVT. Henry Williams are only a few of the names associated with the USTC. Local Black Lives Matter organizer Sonya Patrick and her son Josiah Benjamin Bennetone III happen to be their descendants; both mother and son responded to Hayes’ casting call at CAM.
“Many more came the day of the casting than we expected,” Wilson says, “so many that Stephen was on his feet casting faces for 12 hours. It was incredible. One man drove down from DC just to be cast.”
“I feel it is important, especially for this project, to include the descendants of USCT,” Hayes adds. “I ended up casting the bust of the descendants and the re-enactors to put on the bodies of the soldiers. Currently, nine of the soldiers are in process of being turned into bronze . . . nine soldiers marching arm-in-arm in three rows of three. There will also be a drummer boy and a flag bearer.”
Hayes’ work will be one of the first statues locally to include Black Americans affected by the treachery and treason of the Civil War. North Carolina was one of 11 Southern states that seceded from the Union, in an attempt to uphold state rights to protect economies built on slave labor and in essence keep slaves for labor despite Lincoln’s call for emancipation.
“As a black man in America, you see the imagery of a Black person in chains, being whipped, begging, kneeling and helpless,” Hayes explains. “This project is important to me because, as a creator, I get to change that narrative—by giving Black soldiers a sense of honor and pride.”
February 22, 1865, marked the day Union troops overtook Wilmington and its port. According to reports from the time, many local slaves lined the streets to praise the arrival of the soldiers, ready to take on the Confederacy. Of more than 3,000 United States Colored Troops descending into Wilmington, there were 1,600 who fought their way to victory at 3201 South 17th Street.
“It was to ensure their freedom and the freedom of their families and loved ones,” Wilson says. “It is this story we want to tell. The story of these troops is pivotal to understanding the history of our region.”
Many of the soldiers who fought the Battle at Forks Road also settled locally. They reared families and helped establish systems that built equity for Black Americans at an unprecedented time in American history. “They establish[ed] educational opportunities and a thriving merchant class,” Wilson says. “Their impact is significant, yet their story is virtually unknown. We feel this project will make a lasting impact on eastern North Carolina.”
While Hayes will only choose 11 faces to represent the battle, the sculpture will recognize all men who fought. Their names will be inscribed on the silhouette side of the statue. “We are in the process of a research project to identify all 1,600 men who fought,” Wilson says.
It’s not Hayes’ first time doing racial and social-justice art. His “Cash Crop” series—a SCAD thesis project featuring slaves in shackles—is what drew CAM. Though the project was created in 2010, it continues traveling through museums today.
“We were blown away,” Wilson says. “‘Cash Crop’ features 15 life-size statues chained to a pallet, representing the 15 million people who were transported as slaves from Africa to America. Stephen’s work is both cerebral and emotive. ‘Cash Crop’ resonated so deeply; we immediately knew we wanted to work with him.”
On Wednesday, July 15, CAM is hosting a webinar featuring the USCT project, which will welcome Hayes, descendants Patrick and Bennetone, as well as USCT 35th re-enactor Joel Cook. “We’ll talk about the project, look at images of Stephen’s progress to date, discuss the casting experience and answer questions,” Wilson says.
The webinar is open to the first 100 viewers via Zoom, and once they’re at capacity, it will redirect to CAM’s YouTube channel.
Hayes’ USCT sculpture won’t be ready for unveiling until November 2021. Wilson and CAM faculty are planning a celebration with re-enactors, live music and an exhibition of Hayes’ work inside the museum. Just as well, CAM received a National Endowment for the Arts grant for a series of public programming to explore the USCT story through a variety of media and discussions. Educational outreach for the installment is being planned, with field trips offered for school-aged children across eight counties to learn about nuances of Civil War history that often get overlooked in a classroom setting.
“It just so happens I am a Black person here in America,” Hayes says. “All of my work deals with experiences I’ve been through, growing up in America, and I have seen firsthand how other people see me overseas because of how I am being depicted on TV. I feel it is important for me to use my gifts as a way to create conversations between people. I know people fear what they don’t know and make many assumptions. I feel it is my job to use my work to inform or change one person’s life for the better. It is important to me to change how America views me or someone that looks like me.”