Monday, June 24, 2024

US Colored Troops honored in ‘Boundless,’ bronze sculpture to be unveiled on CAM’s historic grounds

Stephen Hayes will debut the USCT monument, “Boundless,” on Saturday and open his latest show at CAM, “Voices of Future’s Past.” (Port City Daily/Courtesy photo)

[This piece is a 2021-2022 N.C. Press Association award winner in the community coverage category.]

WILMINGTON — The shoes stand out most to sculptor Stephen Hayes when he thinks back over the last two years creating “Boundless.”

The 2,500-pound bronze sculpture will stand 16-by-7.5-by-3 feet, representing soldiers from the United States Colored Troops (USCT), as it’s memorialized and unveiled on Saturday at the Cameron Art Museum. The museum grounds are home to the Battle of Forks Road, won by the USCT who fought for the Union Army against the Confederates in a Civil War skirmish.

“I just think back to their shoes,” Hayes said. “They didn’t have a left and right shoe — they had general shoes. They’d switch them frequently so they wouldn’t wear out as quickly.”

After the fall of Fort Fisher in January 1865, more than 1,000 Black soldiers marched to Federal Point Road, which runs through the forest and wooded area beside the art museum. A sliver of the road is still visible and will become the permanent home of Hayes’ sculpture. It took the troops a month to make the 17-mile trek; upon arrival, they battled from Feb. 20-21.  

READ MORE: ​​New historical marker honors soldiers at the Battle of Forks Road

The win was crucial for the Union and to the fall of Wilmington. A little over a month later General Robert E. Lee surrendered in Appomattox, Virginia, effectively ending the Civil War.

Local historian Chris Fonvielle wrote in his book, “Glory at Wilmington: The Battle of Forks Road,” how the skirmish allowed its victors to harness control over the city — invaluable since it was the leading seaport of the South. It also provided the battle winner jurisdiction over the Cape Fear River and three railroads, “all crucial to final military operations in North Carolina during the Civil War,” Fonvielle wrote.

Many of the Black troops ended up staying in Wilmington to raise families and create opportunities for themselves with the newfound freedom they fought so hard to obtain. One of the soldiers was named Dennis Shines.

“Well, he had two names, actually,” Sonya Bennetone-Patrick said. “When they were slaves, they were sold, and so they carried the names of whoever bought them.”

Corporal Dennis (Shines) Perkins was Bennetone’s great granduncle. She also is related to other USCT members, another great granduncle, Corporal James (Shines) Perkins, and two great grandfathers, Private Henry Williams and Corporal David Jackson. All of their names will be engraved among 1,820 men represented on Hayes’ sculpture. 

In fact, Bennetone’s son, Josiah, sat for Hayes during the community cast session that was held over a year ago at CAM. Josiah said he didn’t find out about his descendents until about a decade ago. His mother began researching their family history after her mother relayed that a relative who fought in the Civil War was buried in the Wilmington National Cemetery. 

“I was so relieved when I found out he was fighting on the right side of justice,” Sonya said. 

Black troops could fight in the Union, unlike in the Confederacy, where they weren’t allowed into combat units, but were forced to serve as cooks and manual laborers instead. In the Union, however, Black men often were used as frontline offense, especially if white soldiers anticipated a battle that could lead to considerable casualties, according to the Cape Fear Historical Institute. Such was the case at Forks Road.

Stephen Hayes had a community cast day at CAM, which PBS captured in a short film here. (Courtesy photo)

Hayes recalled asking Josiah while he was creating his face mold how it felt to be a part of a project that highlighted freedom fighters within his own family’s lineage. “Afterward, he told me he didn’t feel worthy, even though it was his great [great] grandfather,” Hayes recalled.

With the plaster on his face and covering his ears, Josiah had to sit holding the same facial expression for a solid 20 minutes. As he waited for the mold to dry, he said he was immersed in total silence and darkness.

“Just in that moment of stillness and being quiet, I got to picture what my ancestor was going through at that moment, you know?” Josiah reflected. “All the sacrifices that the troops made — the bravery and integrity they faced despite adversity. Fighting for freedom, at a time when they didn’t even have freedom, so my generation would be free. It made me want to stand for something in my life and make a difference as well.”

The 37-year-old is attending law school currently while doing carpentry work full time. 

Rising above the fray of oppression and despair is integral to Hayes’ art. The Durham-based sculptor teaches at Duke University and centers his work on social and economic issues African Americans face, past and present, as well as the misuse and mistreatment of Black bodies and labor.

“​​My passion lies in history, creating work to change the narrative, to change how other people see somebody who looks like me,” he said. 

Hayes originally was going to follow the career path of a mechanical engineer at NC State, but math wasn’t his strong suit, he admitted. Instead, a friend persuaded him to switch into graphic design. Hayes attended North Carolina Central University, and the newfound major opened doors into a world of art he connected with — specifically in ceramics. 

One of the facial casts for “Boundless,” featuring the USCT, which will be unveiled Saturday at Cameron Art Museum. (Courtesy photo)

The artist decided to fully embrace art as a career and attended Savannah’s College of Artist and Design in Atlanta for his MFA. It was there that his professors challenged overarching themes of his work, pushing him to dig deeper and reveal that which inspires him most.

“I was the only African American person in my department and I didn’t have any African American professors,” Hayes said.

He decided to let his art communicate issues he had been grappling with his whole life, specifically from the lens of a Black man.

“I created a narrative for everybody else to be able to relate to,” he said. “I thought, if I had an experience, you know, ‘cause I’m a Black person, I’m pretty sure there’s 100 other young Black men who had these experiences too.” 

One of the installations to arise from this period in Hayes’ life was “Cash Crop!” He designed the project while he attended SCAD 10 years ago, but it has since toured museums nationwide. 

“Cash Crop!” is also on display in conjunction with the “Boundless” unveiling. It’s a part of CAM’s latest exhibit, “Voices of the Future’s Past,” featuring more than 300 sculptures and mixed-media designs by Hayes — a 2020 recipient of the 1858 Contemporary Southern Art Prize. It will be on display through March.

Hayes featured 15 people in “Cash Crop!” to represent 15 million slaves that crossed the Atlantic to be used as commodities. Shadow boxes, 250 of them, are stacked and curved along a wall, showcasing the woodcut of a ship, representative of cramming cargo — i.e. slaves — into small spaces for a months-long journey.

“Cash Crop!” appears as one of many works in “Voices of the Future’s Past,” by Stephen Hayes, also on display at CAM. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

Nearby are life-size ashen-colored casts of Hayes’ friends and family, even himself. Displayed in structures also shaped like ships, the sculptures are bound by chains. Viewers are encouraged to get up close to each. Drips of bronze paint flow from downcast eyes as tears or as blood running down their chests.

CAM deputy director Heather Wilson noted 80% of the USCT troops were enslaved men from the South. “Boundless” highlights a hegemonized history of Black males battling during the Civil War to abolish themselves from Confederate fetters that held them captive. 

According to the National Archives, around 179,000 Black men fought by the war’s end in April 1865, with 10% making up the Union Army.

“I wasn’t fully aware of the story before this project,” Hayes said, specifically referring to Forks Road. Wilson said the project evolved and developed thanks to a number of people whose vast knowledge and historical accuracy of the period helped shape it. Historians Chris Fonville and Devin Kelley, UNCW professor Philip Girard, and Cape Fear Museum’s Jan Davidson provided background and context. Wilson took Hayes’ early sketches to the city’s Commission on African American History, as well as showed re-enactors, descendants, and other historians to garner feedback.

“We went through several ideas,” she said, before landing on the concept: three rows of three men marching, with a flag bearer and drummer leading the way.

Once the designs were agreed upon, Hayes cast descendents, re-enactors and military veterans during a community day at CAM. Around 18 people were molded, though only 11 ended up in the final form.

“The re-enactors are truly our storykeepers,” Wilson praised. “They were the people who kept the story of the USCT alive at the museum for years. There is a way that the sculpture functions on more than one level: It is about the USCT, yes, but it is also about these men, through whom the USCT legacy of agency, honor, strength, and courage lives on.”

Re-enactors, such as Marvin Nicholsan and Clark Morgan, helped authenticate components of Hayes’ sculpture, as every single element cast had to be true to the troops’ original attire, “down to the button,” Wilson said. Another re-enactor in Southport, James White, lent his uniform to the project, so a seamstress in Brunswick County could accurately recreate 11 uniforms and hats for Hayes to cast.

“Once we got the suits and stuff together, I built a mannequin to create movement,” Hayes explained. “It was the hardest part: trying to make everybody look like they’re marching.” 

The artist glued together folds and creases in the wool uniforms to signify motion, before covering it all in plaster to dry and mold.

“I really wanted to create movement in a painterly way,” he described. “I went through a lot of glue.”

Hayes utilized plaster, fabric and wood for the initial sculpture (he even handbuilt the drum carried by the drummer). He cast belts, backpacks, flasks, sleeping bags, guns, and other items the troops would have schlepped as they marched.

It then went into a wax mold before covered in bronze.

The sculpture will stand face-to-face with spectators. “It speaks to the greater whole, to be eye-level with the viewer,” Hayes said. 

All the slaves — men, women and children — in “Cash Crop!” are eye-to-eye with viewers as well. It’s an intentional decision for Hayes, so viewers can see every haunted stare, punctuated by fortitude, despite the brutality of scars effectively traumatizing many generations of people since. 

All 15 slaves from “Cash Crop,” by Stephen Hayes, now on display at CAM through March 2022. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

Hayes said he didn’t want his sculptures to appear “larger-than-life.” Unlike other Civil War monuments — most of which in the South have represented the Confederacy (including the two Wilmington monuments that were permanently removed in August) — this sculpture will not sit on a pedestal. 

“These are guys we never talk about,” Hayes said. “Sure, we have a couple movies about them, but most people don’t know about this history, and they don’t get the credit they deserve. They should be seen.”

“Stephen’s piece provides a counterpoint to Confederate monuments and the ways African Americans have been portrayed in art history and public art, and how the intersection of the legacy of the USCT and the casts of modern day men allows the sculpture to address our past, our present, and our future,” Wilson said. “There is symbolism in their march for freedom and in their continuing to march and fight for freedoms yet won.”

READ MORE: Intricate dioramas detail Black history and community in ‘Pinkie’s Memories,’ new exhibit at CAM

It’s the costliest piece of art CAM has acquired and fundraised for. It took $400,000 to complete, with a $50,000 donation from​​ Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation to kick off the project.

“The price of bronze went up during the pandemic,” Wilson said (the bronze alone cost $325,000). 

“It was a big risk on the part of the museum and there definitely have been sleepless nights,” she added. “But, ultimately, this has been a community project, and we knew we wanted someone of Stephen’s caliber of talent to be a part of it.” 

Though the pandemic delayed “Boundless” from being erected by one year, this weekend will celebrate its completion. CAM will be hosting events both Saturday and Sunday to join together the community-at-large who played a role in seeing the project through.

“The USCT fought for their freedom right here, where our museum stands,” Wilson added. “This is vitally important to who we are as a community.”

Re-enactors will provide life history and infantry demonstrations, as poets Johnny Lee Chapman and Beverly Fields Burnette, plus storyteller Carolyn Evans will perform pieces inspired by the sculpture. Hayes will give a talk with Clark Morgan and Marvin Nicholson, both of whom also were cast for the project. 

“In the end,” Wilson said, “we want children to stand at the sculpture and look up and be inspired by the proud face of the soldiers and think, ‘That could be me. That man looks like me.’”

Saturday, Nov. 13 

11 a.m. Procession, Presentation of the Colors
11:15 a.m. National Anthem sung by Mary D. Williams
11:20 a.m. Welcome Anne Brennan, Executive Director
11:30 a.m. Music by Mary D. Williams
11:40 a.m. Remarks and Unveiling: Greg Miller, CAM Board of Trustees Chair, Carol Miller, USCT Fundraising Committee Chair, Mayor Bill Saffo, Commissioner Jonathan Barfield, Heather Wilson, CAM Deputy Director, Rebecca Quinn-Wolf, PNC Bank, Maurice Green, Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, Artist Stephen Hayes
12-3 p.m. Catch and Soulful Twist Food Trucks
11 a.m. – 3 p.m. CAM Café open for lunch
Noon – 5 p.m. Living History Demonstrations and Encampments, Storytelling, and Family Activities on CAM Grounds
12:30 p.m. Children’s Storytelling by NC Association of Black Storytellers
12:30 p.m. Infantry Demonstration
12:30 p.m. Poet Beverly Fields Burnette and Storyteller Carolyn Evans perform outside by the sculpture
1:30 p.m. Spoken Word Poet Johnny Lee Chapman performs Powhatan outside by the sculpture
2:30 p.m. Poet Beverly Fields Burnette and Storyteller Carolyn Evans perform outside by the sculpture
3 p.m. Infantry Demonstration
3 p.m. USCT Public Programs Series: A Conversation with Stephen Hayes, Clark Morgan, and Marvin Nicholson (CAM Members: $16; Non-Members: $20; Students: $12)
3:30 p.m. Spoken Word Poet Johnny Lee Chapman performs Powhatan outside by the sculpture

Sunday, Nov. 14

10 a.m. – 2 p.m. Living History on the Grounds
10 a.m. – 2 p.m. CAM Café open for regular brunch service
11 a.m. Living History Church Service
12:30 p.m. Infantry Demonstration
2 p.m. “Fighting for Freedom” by Dance Theatre of DREAMS in Reception Hall

Visitor Parking
Guests attending the event are advised to use remote parking at Barclay Center and ride the free shuttles. (There is extremely limited parking along Museum Drive.) The main parking lot at Barclay can be accessed from both Independence and from South 17th Street. Look for the blue feather “parking” flags! For walkers, it is a short .2-mile walk (about 5 minutes) on the Cross City Trail from the parking lot to CAM.

Shuttle Service 
Free shuttles will run continuously from Barclay Center complex (which includes NHRMC Business Center) at the intersection of Independence Boulevard and South 17th Street. The shuttle goes directly to CAM in about 2 minutes. Two shuttle buses will run from 9:30 AM until 4:00 PM on Saturday.

“Cash Crop!” features the image of slave ships in 250 shadow boxes, as well as on the back of the structures holding bonded slaves that Hayes cast from family and friends. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

Have tips or comments? Email

Want to read more from our staff? Subscribe now and then sign up for our newsletter, Wilmington Wire, and get the headlines delivered to your inbox every morning.

Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

Related Articles