When my husband and I visited my daughter’s family in Pittsburgh during the holidays, we had a chance to see the Sailors & Soldiers museum. It was my 10-year-old grandson Oliver’s idea, my daughter informed me, because, she said, “Grandma loves everything about war, soldiers and history.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. I have been proud of all my four grandchildren, but Oliver, at age 10, often thinks like a mature adult even though he’s a goofy, fun-loving American boy. Thanks to him, that day I learned so much American history that I hadn’t been too familiar with.
At 10 in the morning, the elegant museum with its 19th-century French beaux arts details was nearly empty. Opened in 1910, it was erected as a tribute to Allegheny County’s Civil War veterans, a sign read.
The front hall exhibited artifacts from the Civil War to Iraq War. On a wall hung a large bronze panel on which 25,000 names of Union Army soldiers from the area were engraved. In a display case, the death mask of President Abraham Lincoln seemed to ask me, “What does freedom means to you, my Korean friend?”
How could I answer him in a few words? All I could think was that this is how a great man lives in our minds, asking such a solemn question and reminding us that all men are created equal by the Creator, and that we must honor one another, regardless of our differences.
Following the sign “Slaves to Soldiers,” we entered a room where three African-Americans, who seemed to be a father and his teenage son and daughter, were looking at yellowed photos of African-American Confederate soldiers. On the next wall hung another photo showing two black men hanging limply from a tree with a herd of Ku Klux Klan surrounding them, like a pack of wolves around two dead rabbits, each holding a torch. This wasn’t the first time I saw the photo, yet I felt uncomfortable when a family of African-Americans was only a few feet away from me.
The father began talking to his kids too quietly for me to understand. The way the teenagers listened with solemn expressions, I guessed that he was giving them a history lesson. My writer’s curiosity kicked in, and I wanted to know what it was like witnessing such a horrendous crime inflicted on their ancestors by white people a century and half ago. What was the father telling his kids?
“I want to go to talk to them,” I said to my daughter.
“No, Mom!” she said cautiously. “They might not want to talk to you about such a painful subject.”
“Let’s find it out.” I walked toward them.
The father smiled when he saw me. He seemed to be curious why Asians were in the room designated to black history.
“I have a question,” I asked. “How do you feel about seeing these photos? I’m sure it’s not pleasant.”
He paused, as if he wasn’t sure how to take my bold question. “Because of what my ancestors have gone through, we’re here today. We have duty to learn from the past, including my children.”
A good start, I thought. “I know some African-Americans would not come here to see such disturbing photos and to read about their ancestors’ slavery in earlier century. I admire you for bringing your children here.” I then told him that we Koreans had been slaves to Japanese in the early 20th century.
“Ah,” he said and nodded. In an unspoken way, we both agreed that we had similar past.
He began a short lecture: “I want my children to know who paid for our good life we live today. My 92-year-old great aunt still talks about the stories she heard from her mother who was a slave in a plantation in Georgia… Back in olden days, a person’s value depended on what he or she could do physically, and English slave hunters made trips to Africa frequently, the way oxen dealers made trips to an oxen market. But men like President Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. changed everything for us. Today, any African-American can do whatever he or she wants in this country! No one can stop them.
“That was what I was telling my kids just now; that we have brighter future than any time before, and that what we can do solely depends on our willingness and hard work!”
I thanked him.
“Good talking with you,” he said.
On the way out, Oliver asked me how I liked the museum.
“It’s awesome! And Black History Month is just around the corner!”