OUR OPINION: Resurrecting the stories of Colored Troops a long-awaited endeavor

Published 4:00 am Friday, March 10, 2023

Vicksburg National Military Park and the National Cemetery within its gates will soon be the site of one of the most extensive projects in recent memory: the disinterment, cataloging and analysis of the remains of thousands of U.S. Colored Troops.

It’s a righting of a wrong in some ways. It’s the preservation of a moment in history. It’s the restoration of something taken away — a resurrection of stories that have lain dormant beneath marble markers and unmarked plots for nearly two centuries.

The 2020 landslide that impacted the USCT graves was an awful event, of that there’s no doubt. But VNMP archaeologist John Schweikart was right when he said this week that the slide had a silver lining: the opportunity to do right by the people buried there and paint a more complete picture of those who fought for freedom on our city’s soil.

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Some members of the Black community, like Thelma Sims Dukes and other descendants of William “Bill” Sims, have been able to trace their ancestry back before the Vicksburg Campaign and have knowledge of their forefathers’ contributions. Others do not have the privilege of such knowledge for reasons various and asunder, be it lost to time or hidden away.

Thanks to modern technology, the team at VNMP is planning to test for DNA where possible, and perform isotope testing.

The way Schweikart described it at the Feb. 24 Taste of Vicksburg event is, if DNA can’t be extracted from remains, isotope testing analyzes trace minerals in bones that help scientists pinpoint the region an individual was from.

Imagine the possibilities: There’s a good chance there are people walking around in Vicksburg today who have no idea they’re descended from a member of the U.S. Colored Troops.

Also at the Taste of Vicksburg event, Linda Fondren (a consulting party for the cemetery project and local mogul in her own right) gave insight into the way her mind changed about the VNMP as a Black woman. For years, she said she felt as though the park was a symbol of oppression, that she didn’t belong there.

It wasn’t until she toured the park and learned more about its history, including that of the USCT, that she changed her mind.

Shedding more light on the journey of Colored Troops during the Vicksburg Campaign through this cemetery project will, hopefully, solidify that opinion for the people of Vicksburg and those passing through.

The Post is excited to cover the park’s efforts to chronicle these stories, so stay tuned.