In 1861, as the United States stood at the brink of Civil War, people of African descent, both slave and free, waited with a watchful eye. They understood that a war between the North and the South might bring about jubilee -- the destruction of slavery and universal freedom. When the Confederacy fired upon Fort Sumter and war ensued, President Abraham Lincoln maintained that paramount cause was to preserve the Union, not end slavery. Frederick Douglas, the most prominent black leader, opined that regardless of intentions, the war would bring an end to slavery, America's "peculiar institution."
Over the course of the war, the four million people of African descent in the United States proved Douglas right. Free blacks and slaves rallied around the Union flag in the cause of freedom. From the cotton and tobacco fields of the South to the small towns and big cities of the North, nearly 200,000 joined the Grand Army of the Republic and took up arms to destroy the Confederacy. They served as recruiters, soldiers, nurses, and spies, and endured unequal treatment, massacres, and riots as they pursued their quest for freedom and equality. Their record of service speaks for itself, and Americans have never fully realized how their efforts saved the Union. -- Association for the Study of African American Life and History
150 years later, in honor of the efforts of people of African descent to destroy slavery and inaugurate universal freedom in the United States, the 2011 Black History Month theme is "African Americans and the Civil War" to urge all Americans to study and reflect on the value of their contribution to the nation.