Wilmington’s lively Cameron Art Museum hosted a Living History Weekend. This was a sequel to the impressive unveiling in November 2021 of Stephen Hayes‘ sculpture “Boundless,” a significant and strongly-attended event which was reviewed by this writer. The sculpture remains on permanent outdoor display at the Cameron, a poignant evocation of history and an arrow pointing to the future.

The relationship with the sculpture is that the Cameron Museum sits just about adjacent to the nexus of an important Civil War battle: the Battle of Forks Road. This was the battle that led to the fall of Wilmington to the Union army and the end of the war not many weeks later. In addition to this historical significance is the important contribution of the United States Colored Troops (USCT, still officially known by that name) to that victory.  Those troops literally led the charge against the well-fortified Confederate earthworks – remains of which are still visible – and were substantially responsible for the outcome. The sculpture, “Boundless,” movingly memorializes their contribution.

The main events of the weekend were on Saturday. They began with a talk by Kaitlin O’Connor, who is the Educational Outreach Coordinator at Fort Fisher; the fort was captured by Union forces about two weeks before the Battle of Forks Road. She spoke intriguingly of that story, and its relationship to the Forks Road engagement. USCT forces played an important role in the Union victory at Ft. Fisher as well, and in enabling the march of Union forces to Forks Rd. Also, as she described in some detail, enslaved people were forced into hard labor building the numerous Confederate fortifications in the Wilmington area. Her talk gave a rich description of the slave and free contributions to the war effort on both sides.

In the next hour, visitors gathered around the “Boundless” sculpture outside. It was sunny but chilly, yet no matter. Daniel Jones, Cultural Curator at the Cameron, gave a passionate and highly articulate talk about the sculpture and its meaning. In the 15 months since the unveiling, numerous small benches, thanks to donor generosity, have been installed around the sculpture. And of great significance, the names of all 1,800 USCT soldiers who took part in the battle are now written on the back of the sculpture. This commemorates the contribution of each and every individual who fought that day in 1865.

Jones and the museum are dedicated to making this sculpture a centerpiece of community outreach. Many school groups visit throughout the year. On this day, he told the affecting story of a woman living nearby in Brunswick County, who, through a circuitous path, discovered that one of the men in the sculpture represents her great-great grandfather Cesar Evans. She introduced herself to Jones on the day of the unveiling. One could not imagine a more meaningful connection among generations past and present.

Back inside, two films followed, both related to the food of the Gullah culture, the Black descendants of Africans who are indigenous to the coastal regions, including in Wilmington. The films were brought to us by the Rice Festival, an event begun last year and taking place again this year in March in Brunswick County. Both films threw interesting light on a food central to the Gullah diet and lifestyle. Along with being mouthwatering, it was brought out that the crop was so valued that slaveholders here specifically sought out Africans who had the expertise of cultivating rice.

The final talk was given by Tyanna West, a graduate student who is doing her thesis on Gullah culture. This was both informative and personal, as West is of Gullah extraction herself. She is conducting many interviews and centering her material around oral histories. Her talk discussed food, language, and spirituality, and offered much detail on a culture that lives around us in Wilmington and over a distance of 400 miles up and down the East coast – but may not be well-known to many. Gullah offers a window, too, on the African heritage still alive and well here in the U.S. There is even a translation of the New Testament from Greek into Gullah that is used around the Sea Island regions.

During all this time, re-enactors were outside, talking with people, answering questions, and showing artifacts. A drummer boy kept a loud, rhythmic presence. The re-enactors were convivial and eager to interact. Families were present in some numbers, for kids to come face to face with events of long ago which still affect our present.

The Cameron Museum is making a substantial and ongoing contribution to the cultural and historical heritage of Wilmington, a heritage which reverberates well beyond this region. It is to be hoped that other such weekends will follow on this one, and that “Boundless” will continue to impart its message to visitors for a long time to come.