The Story of Service, Part 6: The US Colored Regiment

"Service," by Colin Quashie

On July 26, a mural named SERVICE was dedicated at UNC’s School of Government in the Knapp-Sanders Building. The mural depicts a gathering of African-American leaders at the counter of a diner, painted by Colin Quashie as a creative interpretation of the historical 1960 Greensboro, North Carolina sit-in. We are featuring each of the eight panels in a series, highlighting some of the people represented. You can read all the posts in the series archive.

Panel 6 - U.S. Colored Regiment, SERVICE mural by Colin QuashieIn panel 6, Pauli Murray and John Chavis share memories over old photographs of the Greensboro sit-in while John Henry Merrick and James H. Young converse about Jibreel Khazan, who stands in the foreground.  In the background, outside, members of the 27th regiment of US Colored Troops from the Civil War look on.  Their faces are by turns strong, hopeful, tired, and questioning.

There’s a lot going on here, and like the other panels, it’s more than a little disorienting to see so many larger than life figures from three centuries of North Carolina history all chatting over breakfast.  And if they could do that, if Pauli Murray (1910-1985), who did actually live through the sit in, could share pictures of it with John Chavis (1763-1838) who fought in the Revolutionary War then taught Latin and Greek to black and white children until he was forced to stop doing so in the 1830s, what would she say to him?  How would he respond? To help in answering this, here’s more about everyone in this scene.

We’ll start with the U.S. Colored Regiment outside the window.  This regiment, under the command of General Charles Paine, helped capture Fort Fisher in February 1865.  Afterwards, they constituted the vanguard of the Union’s march on Wilmington.  Richard Reid writes about North Carolina’s US Colored Troops in Freedom for Themselves: North Carolina’s Black Soldiers in the Civil War Era:

“For most of North Carolina’s black volunteers, the years after they joined the army would be difficult and dirty, often dangerous and sometimes deadly. They shared the boredom and terror that was common to most Civil War soldiers while they were expected to do much of the army’s heavy lifting. Frequently their arms, clothing, tents, and rations were the poorest in the army.  Like all soldiers, they were required to follow orders without question and do whatever jobs they were given. The recent literature has fully demonstrated the disproportionate fatigue duties assigned to black troops and the reluctance to provide them with the proper equipment. Nevertheless, all of this should not hide the fact that the military also provided and environment that was, in important ways, different and more egalitarian than what most blacks had experienced prior to 1860.”

These unnamed men look though the window and across the years on five figures whose stories are more well known.

James H. Young and John Henry Merrick

James Young (1860-1921) was a politician, the owner and editor of the Raleigh Gazette, and served in the NC House of Representatives.  In addition, he was colonel in the Spanish-American War and as such, was the first African American to hold the Rank of colonel.

John Merrick (born into slavery in Clinton, NC, 1859-1919) held many jobs, from brick mason (where he helped build Shaw University) to barber, insurance agent, real estate owner, and entrepreneur.  He helped found and was co-owner of the North Carolina Mutual Provident Life Insurance Company, the largest black-owned insurance company in the U.S. He also helped establish many other businesses (and a hospital) in Durham, which, in turn, enabled the city to claim the greatest number of black-owned businesses in the U.S. in the twentieth century.

Pauli Murray and John Chavis
Pauli Murray (1910-1989) was a Civil Rights advocate, feminist, lawyer, writer, poet, teacher, and ordained priest.  In fact, she was the first African American to receive a law doctorate from Yale, was a cofounder of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and was the first black woman to be ordained in the Episcopal Church in America. She offered the Eucharist for the first time just down the block from UNC Press—at the Chapel of the Cross—where her grandmother had been baptized as a slave. She grew up a little further down the road in Durham, where The Pauli Murray Project now honors her memory and continues her legacy of community building.

Here’s Murray, in her own words (from Pauli Murray & Caroline Ware: Forty Years of Letters in Black and White), on the subject of the unanimous vote on Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1954:

“‘Glory be! I think now maybe we have a wonderful country.’. . .Last night Eric, Maida, and I drank a toast to the spirit of Justice Harlan, that towering ghost that stood there over the decades silently pointing the way and giving inspiration to each new host of fighters as the vanquished turned away. . .Seldom are we privileged to be a personal part of such great moments of history, and it seems to me that the United States must have gone a long way toward redeeming itself and winning back many friends of yesterday.”

John Chavis (1763-1838) served in the 5th Virginia Regiment of the Revolutionary War.  An indentured servant, he earned his freedom with his military service.  He went on to graduate from what later became Washington and Lee University and entered the Presbyterian ministry. He later opened a school in Raleigh, where he taught both white and black children—whites during the day, when he specialized in the Latin and Greek they would need to know to be accepted into universities, and blacks in the evenings.  Chavis was forced to give up teaching and preaching in the 1830s when these activities became illegal for blacks.   (What complex reactions he might have had to Pauli Murray’s story of the sit-in.)

Jibreel Khazan

And finally, in the foreground, we see a young Jibreel Khazan, then Ezell Blair Jr., who was a freshman at NC A&T when he participated in the sit-in.  He has said that Gandhi’s story inspired him to participate.  He went on to graduate from A&T in 1963 and now works with developmentally disabled people in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Khazan, recorded in 1979 for the Greensboro Voices Project:

“We had to deal with the spirit of compromise. We’re not going to lose the concept of principle, as Winston Churchill said. . . But many people figured we were just four dumb black freshmen students out on some kind of prank. But we kept trying to tell people, ‘No, this is not the case.’ We had been prepared for this by our teachers, by our community, levels of organizations that we’d been in as young people. We were just not coming out as some—with some wild idea.”

Indeed, everyone behind him seems to be saying, We too have had the same wild idea, and we stand behind you, and with you, on this one.

Stay tuned for next week’s blog on Panel 7—Somerset Place Plantation.