Examining the Past Creates Personal History

Examining the Past Creates Personal History

To understand the present, we have to know our past. That’s a lesson Dawn Chitty ’08 has come to appreciate in more ways than one.

As the education director at the African American Civil War Museum in Washington, D.C., Chitty has learned the importance of sharing the often untold stories of the United States Colored Troops, and in so doing, she’s unearthed a new, more personal perspective on our country’s evolution.

Dawn Chitty is the education director at the African American Civil War Museum. (Photos by Leslie McKellar)

Dawn Chitty is the education director at the African American Civil War Museum. (Photos by Leslie McKellar)

But Chitty wasn’t always drawn to the trials and tribulations of times gone by. And even when she was, the Civil War wasn’t her first topic of choice (she was drawn more to the colonial time period and the American Revolution). As a transfer student to the College, she enrolled as a biology major with plans to pursue a career in epidemiology (that’s the study of diseases). As is often the case in young adulthood, Chitty had a change of heart, and biology turned out to be a path she didn’t really want to pursue. So, after taking one anthropology course, she decided to make that her major instead.

“I was really drawn to the different specializations in the field, especially linguistic anthropology,” she recalls. “I traveled a lot with my mom growing up, and I was exposed to a lot of different languages. I was always fascinated by how culture was tied to language and vice versa. I was intrigued by where I could go with it.”

And, as it turned out, studying the development of human societies and cultures was a great fit.

“I was always encouraged in the anthropology department,” Chitty says, noting that she really enjoyed working with anthropology professor E. Moore Quinn, with whom she is still in touch. “The teachers there are very personable and supportive. I feel like the biggest thing I was taught at the College was to keep an open mind and not to be afraid to ask questions and explore.”

Those lessons served her well not long after graduation, when, somewhat by happenstance, Chitty walked into the African American Civil War Museum in Washington, D.C., and struck up a conversation with the museum’s curator. The rest, as they say, is history.

“I was very fascinated by the degree with which the museum tells their story, and the emotional ties for African American families who learn they have an ancestor who served in the Civil War,” she says, noting that the United States Colored Troops accounted for more than 10 percent of the Union Army during the Civil War, which equaled approximately 200,000 men of African descent by the time the war ended in 1865. “I’d come across historical material in the past, looking at research while I was in school that talked about colored troops, but this was a story I hadn’t really heard before.”

With her interest piqued, Chitty started volunteering at the museum, which led to a full-time position as the education director, a role that includes producing K-12 materials for students and educators, creating programming for field trips to the museum and marketing those programs and materials to schools across the greater D.C. area and beyond.

And the museum’s goal of elevating the story of the United States Colored Troops became all the more personal when Chitty traced the name of a solider in the 103rd Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops to her own family ancestry.

“Just learning his story was very emotional to me and my family,” she says.

And that’s why history matters: It’s personal.