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UNF Digital Humanities Institute helps claim justice for Civil War veterans

Student browsing through files for old documentsA University of North Florida Digital Humanities Institute (DHI) project aims to undo the injustice experienced by Black veterans of the American Civil War who were denied pensions for their service in the U.S. Military. 

UNF DHI collaborates with many community partners on interdisciplinary projects through in-depth research and the use of digital technology and practices. Many of these projects hold historical significance and provide an opportunity to learn about individuals and events of the past. Their project, “USCT Pensioners: Rejection, Resilience, and Redemption,” lives up to the Institution’s mission to “Embrace the Past. Design the Future.” 

UNF DHI students found that United States Colored Troops (USCT) and their loved ones were denied pensions nearly every time they applied. Often, these black soldiers and their relatives, unlike other soldiers, had to endure a yearslong, arduous task of finding witnesses, affidavits and other forms of verification to prove they were who they claimed to be in order to collect their pensions. 

Student using a tool to flip through an old documentThe project’s origins began in 2020 when Dr. James Beasley, UNF DHI director and associate professor of English, was teaching a class that was assisting with a project at the Lincolnville Museum and Cultural Center in St. Augustine. The museum’s personnel inquired if Beasley would be interested in researching USCT soldiers from the Lincolnville neighborhood. From there, Beasley received a list of soldiers’ names that were cross-referenced with records from the Thomas G. Carpenter Library’s Special Collections. Acquiring help from faculty at Flagler College, UNF students taking the Rhetoric and Digital Humanities course in spring 2021, were able to publish their findings in the form of virtual posters in the “Resilience” Omeka website. Omeka is an open-source web-publishing platform for scholarly collections. 

Beasley said he is honored to help preserve the memory of USCT pensioners and help UNF students engage in research that impacts the community. 

“Students were able to take the skills that we teach in our classes and have it affect social change,” Beasley said. 

Nearly two years after publishing the posters online, Beasley was contacted by Kristopher Smith, community development program officer for Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) Jacksonville, which was the beginning of the current collaboration between UNF DHI and LISC Jacksonville. In this collaborative project, UNF students aid the efforts of LISC Jacksonville to rehabilitate abandoned USCT gravesites in Northeast Florida. Together, Beasley and Smith serve as co-directors of the USCT project.  

Smith was looking for burial locations of USCT pensioners and their descendants as part of LISC Jacksonville’s “Operation Final Honors” initiative, which aims to assist families seeking to obtain headstones for loved ones buried in unmarked graves throughout Northeast Florida. LISC Jacksonville helps residents transform distressed neighborhoods into healthy, sustainable communities that are good places to live, work and play. 

A stolen headstone 

Forgotten and cracked tombstoneBeasley says he recognized one of the names mentioned by Smith — Corporal William Johnson of the 33rd Infantry Company F — as a soldier the UNF DHI had found within the pension records they reviewed. Johnson is buried in the Chaseville Cemetery on the campus of Jacksonville University. When the cemetery was discovered in 1989, Johnson’s grave was marked with a headstone. Sometime afterward, the headstone went missing and was never recovered. 

Using the pension records provided by UNF DHI, Smith successfully petitioned the U.S. Army for a new headstone for Johnson earlier this year. The headstone was recently presented during a memorial ceremony at The River House on the JU campus. 

New Tombstone "In Memory of William Johnson, CORP CO F, 33 USCI, Civil War, 1841"Smith is grateful for the assistance of UNF DHI and others in helping the LISC’s efforts to preserve the memory of the many overlooked USCT soldiers. 

“Working with UNF DHI has accelerated our efforts to understand and celebrate the contributions of USCT Company F throughout U.S. history,” Smith said. 

Moving forward, UNF DHI will continue to work with LISC Jacksonville to look for the gravesites of other local USCT pensioners and obtain headstones commemorating the lives of these brave individuals. 

Beasley said working on this project has been an incredible experience, especially seeing the efforts of UNF DHI culminate in acquiring a headstone for Corporal Johnson. 

“It’s been extremely inspiring to see how looking for information and conducting research has led to the physical manifestation of the headstone being created,” said Beasley. “No matter how small what you’re doing in the classroom is, it might have a large effect in the community.”