At the commencement of firing in 1861, Black individuals and groups in places like Detroit and Battle Creek prepared for and organized efforts to enlist black men in the War of the Rebellion. From the time the 1st Michigan Colored Infantry was formed on February 17, 1863 to the end of the war in 1865, 1,446 enlisted men fought in what became the 102nd Michigan Regiment. Before and after Michigan began recruitment in 1863, at least 90 men enlisted in regiments outside of the state like the 54th Massachusetts.
After their service, hundreds of these veterans, their widows and children submitted pension applications for a plethora of the injuries and diseases the men contracted from the time they enlisted until their discharge. Each file generated thick tomes of accounts from the claimant, other veterans, physicians, coworkers, family members, employers and neighbors. These rich documents illuminate outstanding late 19th and early 20th century perspectives on place, family, gender, economy, resistance, health, relationships, power, story, credibility, identity, work, community, progress, legality, government, love, survival, networks and borders.
As part of an initiative to implement change, build local capacity and reshape the Michigan Historical Museum’s second floor exhibit galleries to better reflect the diversity of Michigan’s stories, the Exhibits for a New Century/Pre 1915 Michigan Black Communities project has currently digitized 95 Civil War pension records for black Michigan soldiers of which 28 enlisted in Detroit. That this may well be the largest collection of its type in Michigan speaks to the size of the research team needed to comb these incredible records. Dr. Michelle S. Johnson, Public Historian for the State of Michigan, is leading statewide collaborators in public and higher education, family history, museums, libraries, arts and cultural organizations to glean important information from these records. The project currently seeks eastern Michigan volunteer researchers to join partners with the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), Detroit Historical Museum, the Detroit Historic Sites Committee and Friends of the Michigan Manual of Freedmen’s Progress and help identify and map integral Detroit people, stories and places.
Johnson will host early winter Detroit Historical Record Listening Parties where the Civil War pension records, City Directories, and period maps will be available so participants can learn about, view and share these important glimpses of 19th and early 20th century history.