African Americans weren’t allowed to join the Army in 1862, but that didn’t stop the members of the Kansas Volunteer Infantry Regiment from fighting.
More than 200 former slaves and free black men fought for the Union at the Battle of Island Mound in Bates County, south of Kansas City, for the first time in the Civil War. The Union regiment fought as an independent militia and won the battle on Missouri soil.
This historical account was depicted in a woodcut by Thomas Nast in 1863, and a print is on view in Ellis Library. The black-and-white print is one piece of the War, Peace and Black Progress exhibit selected to highlight moments in black history.
The exhibit was installed in honor of Black History Month by the State Historical Society of Missouri and Ellis Library at the start of February. It showcases African-American service in the Civil War, Vietnam War, Civil Rights Movement and South African apartheid. And, although Black History Month ends in a week, the exhibit will remain up until the end of March.
“In some ways, this is just a platform, a starting point,” said Joan Stack, curator of art collections for the historical society. “It’s such a huge topic, I mean you’re just getting a few little samples of what you could study, but hopefully it opens up people’s minds.”
Social science librarian Paula Roper said this exhibit, as well as black history, holds importance because the media often “don’t really do justice to the whole, the complexity of the black experience in America or the rest of the world.”
“For example, if you basically watched movies about cowboys, you wouldn’t know that a lot of the cowboys were black,” Roper said. “You wouldn’t know that a lot of the soldiers, whether fortunately or unfortunately, that a lot of the soldiers involved with settling the West were black soldiers. I think it’s very critically important.”
The exhibit includes many drawings of black soldiers, including a selection on Buffalo Soldiers created by Columbia local Kenneth Greene. He made the drawings in the 1990s, but most of the pieces in the collection were made during the period they depict.
The exhibit includes cartoons, crayon and ink drawings, illustrations, photographs, poems and book covers, along with Nast’s woodcut print.
“With the newspaper editorial cartoon, you’re kind of getting a snapshot of different things people were thinking of, were thinking about,” Stack said. “So it’s one artist, but it’s also stuff that’s on people’s minds. It’s kind of like the Saturday Night Live, the political sketches of their time.”
Public history intern Katie Ziegler said the display cases allow people to make connections about different cultures.
“I think there are a lot of relevant examples for understanding Mizzou identity in this history,” she said.
The exhibit has been an annual installation for decades, but the theme changes each year based on the Black History Month theme released by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. This year’s theme at MU — War, Peace and Black Progress — comes from the association’s 2018 theme, “African Americans in Times of War.”
Next year’s national theme will be “Black Migrations and Urban Realities,” but MU’s theme has not yet been announced.