​Black History: Celebrating Gifts from the Past

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

“During the Civil War we were slaves,” said Civil War re-enactor and gifted artist Sunday Perkins of her ancestors. “I’m proud of them. I know them through how I feel. I feel creative. I feel encouraged. I feel like going on to see what the end’s going to be. I had to inherit that from someone.”
Perkins set the stage for keynote presenter Gary Burks at the Mt. Sinai Missionary Baptist Church African American history and culture celebration on Feb. 23. Portraying a black woman nurse and a United States Colored Troops (USCT) soldier, Perkins and Burks took the audience back in time.
Featured in Oxford American magazine, Civil War Times, and the Civil War TV series “Blood and Fury,” re-enactor Burks was drawn to the calling by the film “Glory.” The movie depicts the heroic action of one of the first USCT regiments in the 1863 Battle of Fort Wagner. Burks joined the ranks of a Nashville re-enactment group only to discover years later that his great-great-grandfather Peter Bailey fought in the Civil War. Researching his deceased father’s records, Burks learned his great-great-grandmother received a USCT pension from the U.S. Army.
“Over 200,000 black soldiers and sailors fought in the Civil War,” Burks said.
Outfitted in the period costume of a USCT soldier, Burks told the story of the black troops in poetry and song. USCT regiments comprised 10 percent of the manpower of the Union army. Over 20,000 of those troops came from Tennessee. Nineteen hundred USCT soldiers are buried at the Nashville National Cemetery on Gallatin Road.
Quoting Frederick Douglas, African American orator, statesman, and former slave, Burks said, “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.”
A gifted painter and illustrator who taught art in the Franklin County Public Schools for over 30 years, Perkins’ calling to join the ranks of Civil War re-enactors came when she viewed a photograph of African American Civil War nurse Elizabeth Fairfax buried and honored as a Civil War veteran.
“She looked like kin,” Perkins said of Fairfax. “I wanted to represent all the black ladies never recognized.”
Fairfax received no pension. After the war she had a photograph made of herself and sold copies. “She took in laundry, she worked,” said Perkins. “Every talent you have, you should put it to use.”
Asked how long she had been drawing and painting, Perkins thought for a moment before replying. “Always. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t.”
Sandra Kennerly Brown has coordinated the annual Mt. Sinai black history and culture celebration for more than 30 years. Many of the celebrants attending wore colorful attire evoking their African roots.
“Without history we would not know our greatness,” said Pastor John Patton in closing. “Those who brought us here are a vital part of who we have become. We have to rise above what others have been telling us. We cannot let others define who we are.”