Family  /  Dispatch

Descendants of Black Civil War Heroes Wear Their Heritage With Pride

A bold new photographic project asks modern-day Americans to recreate portraits of their 19th-century ancestors in painstakingly accurate fashion.

At the studio in Manhattan, Austin Morris, a 20-year-old Division 1 soccer player at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, is getting ready to recreate a portrait of Lewis Douglass. Morris has always known he was descended from Frederick Douglass, though he keeps a low profile about it. “I’m never going to be like, ‘Oh, look at me,’” he says shyly. “I tell my close friends, but I don’t really like all the attention.”

It felt different to dress up like Lewis. “I was looking at his picture, thinking: I’m 20. He was in his 20s when the picture was taken. He fought in the war, and he was one of the first Blacks to sign up for it. That’s crazy. I couldn’t imagine doing that.” Wearing a uniform like his ancestor wore, its sleeves marked with the insignia of a sergeant major, Morris reflects on his own ambitions. “It makes me feel like I need to make them proud, to carry on their legacy,” he says, “to do things that will honor our family.”

None of the men in uniform today has ever served in the military, but many of their relatives have. Charles and Joan Miller are here with their adult son, Jared, who is dressed like his Civil War ancestor Richard Oliver. Jared wears a slouchy dark blue Civil War forage cap on his head. Charles wears a baseball cap with the words “Thomas Edison 64 Vietnam.” “I went to Edison High School in Philadelphia, and we had the highest casualties of any school in America,” Charles says. The 64 refers to the number of boys from his almost entirely African American school who died in a war many of them saw as irrelevant to their lives. Charles himself tore up his paperwork from the Selective Service when it first arrived, but after the police spotted him in the park singing doo-wop songs with his friends, they loaded the young men into a police van and brought them before the draft board. With help from a family friend, he was able to enlist in the Navy instead of the Marines, and he spent the war years serving in the Caribbean instead of Southeast Asia.