This Veterans Day, I’m grateful that we can look forward to having a new president who will not dishonor and disparage the memory of those who have served our nation, and who will not disrespect the contributions to our military made by this country’s Black citizens. With that in mind, I decided to revisit a story I wrote back in 2009.
Military service to this country has been a tradition on both sides of my family. My dad was a Tuskegee Airman in World War II, and his white forebears on his mother’s side fought in the Civil War on the side of the Union, in the Mexican-American War, and the American War of Independence. My dad’s grandfather, John Oliver, served in the 17th Regiment of the United States Colored Infantry, and fought at the Battle of Nashville.
I am named for my mom's childless great uncle, who left his land in the hills of Loudoun County, Virginia, to the women of the family; it has since been passed down to the oldest daughters to maintain. His name was Dennis Weaver; my grandfather was named Dennis for him, and in his honor, I was named Denise. He was enslaved, and after being emancipated in Washington, D.C., went off to fight for the Union as "a colored soldier." My great-grand Uncle Dennis’ owner, Hugh W. Throckmorton, was compensated by the federal government for the loss of his labor. Reading the document—in which Dennis is labeled “my property” by Throckmorton—still makes me shudder.
That “property” had a dollar value.
That your petitioner acquired his claim to the aforesaid service or labor of said Negroes in manner following:(2) Partly by inheritance and partly by Purchase. having formerly Belonged to his father Mordicai Throckmorton. Who died in Loudon Co. State of Virginia. Leaving Said Negroes, as aforesaid, he the said Hugh, Paying the debts due by his said father, thereby partly receiving them by inheritance and partly by Purchase as aforesaid
That your petitioner's claim to the service or labor of said Negroes was, at the time of said discharge therefrom, of the value of Seven thousand three hundred fifty Dollars dollars in money.(3) as follow to Wit. Lewis 1200$ Solomon 1400$. Henry 400$ Dennis 1150$ Joseph 1000$ Patsy 1000$ John 100$ and Winney 1100$. They all Being healthy, Young and Good Workers and no defect except Henry, as aforesaid, and that to the Best of My Knowledge and Belief they have no moral mental or bodily infirmities or defects except in the case as stated in Henry.
As you can see, Dennis Weaver was valued at $1,150 ($23,755.71 in today’s money). Ask yourself, what would you have been worth? How can a price be set on a human life? Yet, it was, and we were bought and sold. I’m very aware of the conditions of enslavement he lived under, along with other members of my family, since I have been doing genealogical and historical research on slavery for many years. I have never questioned his burning desire to go off and join the Union Army to fight, and perhaps die, as so many did, for that precious thing called liberty, for himself and his family and friends.
That man who was once “property” was a patriot, in the truest sense of the word. Loudoun County historian Kevin D. Grigsby discussed my Uncle Dennis, and other Black men who fought for the Union, writing for The Washington Post in 2013.
The fighting southeast of Richmond was especially bloody, and 14 African Americans received the Medal of Honor for their actions in the battle.
A few county natives made it back to Loudoun after the war and, like Weaver, made a mark on the local African American community. Of the 250 or so black Loudoun soldiers Grigsby found, fewer than 20 returned.
“I don’t want to say they lived an anonymous life,” he said. “But they just kind of settled back in. There weren’t parades or statues or monuments; they came back as victors.”
“I can’t even imagine what it was like for an African American . . . to have had that moment,” Grigsby said. “In some cases, you went from a slave to a liberator . . . to a protector and then, within so many years, you begin to see that freedom slowly peeled back and you have the rise of Jim Crow.”
My story about great-grand uncle Dennis deals with his struggle to get a pension after he returned home, to the county where he was once enslaved. It reminds me that Black veterans have historically faced obstacles; just look at the history of the G.I Bill after WWII, and see how our Black service members were treated.
I was able to obtain Dennis’ pension files from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). I received a stack of documents—over 200 pages. His battle to get a pension involved legal wrangling for years. The amount of paperwork, bureaucracy, and persistent denials he had to face was enough to discourage anyone, but he persevered. He finally wound up with initially six dollars a month, which was later increased to 12 dollars. Dennis was luckier than many, for he could read and write.
I have documented his history, in his own words and handwriting, on my website, including the surprise information that he played a cornet in the military band. He wrote,"my music teacher said to me, 'Weaver I'm going to give you a piece of music to play that will either kill you or cure you."
The pension struggle with the government continued after Dennis died on June 27, 1911. Delia Fields Weaver, his wife, had to then prove she was married to Dennis in order to get a widow’s pension. The case was closed in 1935, when a check sent to Delia was returned, for she had died.
I am more fortunate than most Black folks attempting to do research on their families, because Dennis was mentioned in “A History of Snickersville” (now Bluemont), by Jean Herron Smith. It tells the story of how Dennis obtained the land that is his legacy.
"On This mountain side, James Fields, a free negro, already had
bought land . Now It was to become a haven for those negroes who
were just becoming aware of the privilege of home ownership. One of
the first to buy was Benjamin Franklin Young, who bought 17 acres
from Dr. Plaster in 1871. Later that year, Dr. Plaster sold Dennis
Weaver 6 acres. Dennis Weaver built a house on this mountainside,
on the narrow road that bounds the Carrington house, winds past the
old school, and twists up behind the breastworks of the war that
brought freedom. Dennis and his wife Delia cleared the woods for
lawn and garden and from This house went back and forth to the
village - Dennis to help the farmers bring the scorched earth back to productivity and Delia to care for countless of the households and
children. One of these children remembers today her spankings.
Aunt Delia cared for others until about 1923, when she herself
needed care. It was hard to persuade someone to live up in the woods,
so Delia, in return for her services which she had agreed to render me in waiting upon me and nursing me during my last illness I willed
Winifred Scott all her household and kitchen furniture and all her
money, except $100 which she bequeathed to Christopher Scipio.
Aunt Delia was healthier than she anticipated and by 1931 Winifred
Scott felt she could no longer render those final services (probably
got married) and the will was changed to name Glovia Scott as the
nurse. Delia Weaver lived until 1935 and now lies buried beside
Dennis, not on the mountain, but only a few miles away, looking back
to the village in which they lived in slavery and the home which they
built in freedom. "
Along with many of Loudoun’s Black citizens, Dennis and Delia are buried in Rock Hill Cemetery; Black people were segregated even in death. There is currently a movement to preserve those Black cemeteries that still exist.
Austin Gaffney wrote about this effort for National Geographic this summer.
Fieldstones. Yucca plants. Seashells. The last object a loved one touched. For centuries, these items, cultivated from lives and landscapes, marked many graves at burial places for Black people in America.
Racism continues to haunt these final resting places. Unlike many predominantly white cemeteries, which were designed as garden spaces to honor both the dead and the living, Black cemeteries—like the communities they represented—were relegated to the periphery. In the generations since enslavement, many Black burial sites have been neglected by local officials or re-buried by development, leaving descendants unable to locate or visit their ancestors’ resting places. Now, in a moment of racial reckoning, the long-running efforts by communities to preserve these historic Black sites could gain new momentum.
Because no official database exists, it’s impossible to track how many historic Black gravesites dot the American landscape. But proposed legislation could change this: the African American Burial Grounds Network Act would create a network of Black cemeteries and a formal database of historic Black burial sites—including grant funding for research and restoration—under the purview of the National Park Service.
Cemeteries are not the only issue. Monuments to white supremacy, honoring the losers, have been in the news. However, even when Black soldiers are acknowledged, their contributions could be separated, like this example from Loudoun County last summer.
The separating line on the World War I monument hits home for Marilyn Thornton, a Washington, D.C.-based author and the granddaughter of war veteran James Edgar Thornton, about whom she wrote a book. Marilyn Thornton is a relative of one of the Black Loudoun County deceased, Samuel C. Thornton. She supports replacing the plaque.
“Can’t you just see people sitting around in a meeting saying, ‘Oh, let’s put the white boys at the top?’” she said in an interview with the Times-Mirror. “It’s just incredible to me that anybody would think to do that.”
Thornton said she saw the plaque for the first time when researching her 2016 book, “Letters From Edgar’s Trunk,” based on accounts from her grandfather in the 369th Infantry Regiment during World War I. The group was commonly known as the Harlem Hellfighters. The author dedicated the book to the Black soldiers listed on the plaque — Ernest Gilbert, Valentine B. Johnson and Samuel C. Thornton.
My great-grand Uncle Dennis was not "African American," or “Black” at the time of his birth: He was simply property. A Negro slave. Our family took the surname Weaver from the occupation of his grandmother—a weaver for the family who owned her.
A polite term to use for Black folks back then was "colored." So as I write today of this young “colored” soldier, I am reminded of the classic poem by Black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, in which he honored “The Colored Soldiers.” It’s performed here by storyteller and poet Mitch Capel, who is also known as “Gran’daddy Junebug.”
Those of you who are fans of classical music may or may not be aware of the work of William Grant Still, who was known as the "Dean of African-American Composers."
William Grant Still's career was comprised of many "firsts". He was the first African-American composer to have a symphony performed by a professional orchestra in the U.S., the Symphony no. 1 "Afro-American" (1930). It was premiered by Howard Hanson and the Rochester Philharmonic. The piece's New York premiere was given by the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall in 1935. He also became the first African-American to conduct a major symphony orchestra in the United States when he led the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1936. In the world of opera, his Troubled Island was the first by an African-American to be performed by a major opera company (New York City Opera, 1949) and that same opera was the first by an African-American to be nationally televised.
It is fitting today, in memory of my great-grand Uncle Dennis, and those who fought and died with him, and for the Black vets of all our wars, to close with Still’s In Memoriam: The Colored Soldiers Who Died for Democracy.
The work was commissioned by the League of Composers, and was premiered on Jan. 5, 1944 by the New York Philharmonic under Artur Rodzinski. David Ciucevich writes in the liner notes: “The New York Times critic Olin Downes remarked on its powerful 'simplicity and feeling, without affectation or attitudinizing'. The wording of the title does carry an ironic aspect, reflecting the fact that African-Americans were fighting for world freedom and civilization abroad while being denied those very freedoms at home.”
Enjoy this performance from the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
If any of you are fortunate enough to visit Washington, D.C., be sure to visit the African American Civil War Museum and Monument.
In honor of these American soldiers who fought for freedom during the American Civil War, the Spirit of Freedom: African American Civil War Memorial sculpture and its Wall of Honor, was situated in the heart of the historic “U” Street district, and serves as a reminder of the courageous story of the USCT. The sculpture portrays uniformed soldiers and a sailor at a height of ten feet with a family depicted on the back of the sculpture, and is situated in the center of a granite-paved plaza, encircled on three sides by the Wall of Honor. The wall lists the names of 209,145 USCT drawn from the official records of the Bureau of United States Colored Troops at the National Archives, on 166 burnished stainless steel plaques arranged by regiment.
Here’s a short video tour, until you get there.
Dennis Weaver’s name is one of those listed. I have not forgotten. None of us should.