A Take On Black History
Historical re-enactor Gregory Cherry, of Newport News, is spreading the word about the role some blacks played during the Civil War.
BY KIM O’BRIEN ROOT
February 4, 2006
NEWPORT NEWS — His uniform isn’t gray. Rather, it’s more of a cocoa color with black piping.
But when re-enactor Gregory Cherry dons it today, he’ll represent one of a group of slave musicians who toured during the Civil War and, to show their loyalty, gave profits from their shows to help Confederate soldiers.
Unusual? Maybe, but the role of blacks during the Civil War isn’t quite as well known as that of whites. For Cherry, a self-described history buff, it’s important to get out the word about what took place back then.
"I’m trying to tell the stories no one knows," said Cherry, who will present his new character – the first black Confederate one he’s done in his five years of re-enacting – at the Newsome House Museum and Cultural Center today.
In representing a member of the Confederate Ethiopian Serenaders, Cherry will sing a little, play the bugle and tell the story of the musicians, who first formed in Louisiana. He’ll also share some of his knowledge about the roles of blacks during the Civil War, including those who lived in Hampton Roads.
Although blacks weren’t sanctioned by the government to fight until 1863, "colored" units had formed a few years earlier and gone into battle, mostly for the Union.
Fort Monroe became refuge to as many as 10,000 runaway slaves during the Civil War. Some later joined up with the Union’s Army of the James, which served along the James River in the war’s final days.
Across the South, slaves who served as body servants for wealthy plantation owners or their sons would sometimes go into battle in their place. So the slaves would end up fighting for the Confederacy, Cherry said.
"There are black folks who think, ‘Ain’t no way we fought for the South,’ " Cherry said. "But yeah, we did. That’s stuff they don’t teach you in school."
Cherry is always coming up with new ideas for programs, and the Newsome House is excited to debut his new character during Black History Month, said Mary Kayaselcuk, its historical site coordinator.
"He brings a lot of excitement and drama to his performances," she said. "Everything he does is top notch."
Cherry grew up poor in Newport News, went to Peninsula Catholic High School on a scholarship and left town when he graduated. He initially wanted to be a priest and went to a Bible college in Baltimore but changed his mind after experiencing what he describes as "a lot of hatred and bigotry."
He worked as a distribution manager for a Northern Virginia newspaper for a while and then did a nine-year stint in the Army, during which he did the proverbial traveling around the world as a congressional escort. A skilled trumpet player, he also was a member of the Fife and Drum Corps and played the bugle at military events.
Once out of the Army, Cherry worked in the transportation business for a while before returning to Newport News in 1995. Then, another chapter in his life took off: He got reacquainted with a childhood crush who he eventually wed, and by 1999, had acquired a historic home in the East End and begun to restore it.
The James A. Fields House at 617 27th St. is still a work in progress, but it’s where Fields can be found most days, giving tours and talking about the house’s history. It once belonged to Fields, an escaped slave who found refuge at Fort Monroe during the Civil War and served as a guide for Union troops.
Fields later became one of the first graduates of what was then called Hampton Institute, got a law degree from Howard University and, as a justice of the peace, served as Virginia’s first black judicial officer. He was Commonwealth’s Attorney in then-Warwick County and also served in the Virginia General Assembly.
After Fields’ death, a group of doctors established the first hospital for black patients on the second floor of the stately red brick 27th Street house, which Fields had once used as a residence and law office.
Cherry himself was born 51 years ago at Whittaker Memorial Hospital, an offshoot of the original Fields House hospital.
For Cherry, it has become a mission to spread the word about the history of blacks in the Hampton Roads area as well as elsewhere. One room in the James A. Fields House is devoted to the Civil War, another to the Revolutionary War.
Cherry is researching and writing a book about Newport News’ Southeast Community, also known as the East End. He also mentors about 10 teenagers – his "Civil Guard" – and teaches them how to play music.
"I used to be kind of bad," said 15-year-old Lavell Handy, a 10th-grader at Hampton High School who learned the bugle from Cherry. "He’s helped me out."
Handy and two other boys will join Cherry as Civil War musicians during the Newsome House program, except that the teens will portray Union players in a skit that Cherry has created for the event.
Until now, the soldiers Cherry has portrayed have been from the Union. Cherry is interested to see the response his Confederate musician will get. The next character he creates might even be a slave who served as a body servant for a Confederate soldier and fought for him on the battlefield, he said.
There aren’t many black Civil War re-enactors in this area, Cherry said, and most portray Union soldiers.
"My big thing is getting the story out," Cherry said. "The stuff I’ve learned – you don’t find it in history books. That’s why I do what I do."