By Derrick Perkins
Maurice Barboza’s dogged fight to pay tribute to black patriots of the Revolutionary War hinges on a massive defense bill being negotiated in Congress.
After years of gathering support for the memorial project, Barboza — an Alexandria resident — got a boost earlier this month when Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) attached an amendment to the multibillion-dollar defense authorization bill. If approved by both houses, Barboza can begin fundraising and working with the National Parks Service to select a site for the memorial near the National Mall.
Still, because the House bill does not contain language for the memorial, Barboza’s dream of honoring his ancestors depends on whether lawmakers in both chambers include the project as they reconcile their competing versions. And that’s nothing new for Barboza.
Since 2005 — when a bill authorizing the memorial was first submitted — Barboza has seen multiple efforts die in congressional wrangling.
“The legislative process is full of ups and downs, and sometimes things move so slowly you can become very frustrated by them,” he said. “And sometimes people change their mind or change their position, and you have to anticipate that and when it happens deal with it.”
Barboza’s decades-long quest to honor black patriots also has seen its share of ups and downs. In the 1970s he traced his roots back to two Maine men who served in the Revolutionary War. And later, he joined the Sons of the American Revolution and urged his relatives to do the same.
But when his aunt, Lena Ferguson, tried to join the Daughters of the American Revolution, she found the group less welcoming of a black woman. Though the DAR eventually relented — after the Washington, D.C., City Council threatened to revoke the group’s nonprofit status — Ferguson began compiling the names of black Revolutionary War veterans.
Barboza joined the effort, and when they hit 5,000 individuals, they decided to push for a monument on the National Mall. But the effort fizzled, and Barboza withdrew from the project in the mid-’90s as support for the memorial dissipated.
When Ferguson died in 2004, he decided to champion the cause once again. While bills authorizing the memorial struggled in Congress, he connected with local lawmakers across the country, bringing often forgotten black patriots back into the spotlight.
Towns and cities across the East Coast, as well as in Louisiana and Ohio, have passed resolutions honoring their black Revolutionary War veterans. In summer 2011, the Alexandria City Council backed his project and honored the memory of four black city residents who hefted a musket or crewed a ship for the fledgling nation.
He hopes the outpouring of local support will impress congressional negotiators.
“The [representatives] from the East Coast have patriots from their districts,” Barboza said. “We’re reminding them that by voting for this bill — you’re voting for your local history.”
If the bill survives the political sausage-making, Barboza will have seven years to raise money for the project and select one of six potential sites for the future monument. The bill before lawmakers blocks Barboza from using federal dollars for the memorial.
He has a few fundraising ideas but won’t reveal them until after President Barack Obama signs the bill — hopefully with his amendment — into law.
“It’s a lot to achieve,” Barboza said. “But the history is worth it, so we have to give it a try.”