Iowa lawmaker, the great-great grandson of a Black Civil War veteran who escaped slavery, on quest to uncover history

Iowa Democratic Party Chair Ross Wilburn takes pride in his great-great grandfather, a Black Civil War veteran who served in the 1st Colored Regiment of Iowa.

When Ross Wilburn’s granduncle told him about a relative who had served in the Union Army during the American Civil War, he took notice.

“I had a little flashback to when I was a kid playing with my cousins in the basement,” he said. “And we found this sword, and we were kind of looking at it and waving it around in the air,” he said.

Wilburn, the first Black chair of Iowa’s Democratic Party, didn’t know it at the time, but the sword or “musket” belonged to Sgt. Harrison T. Gash, also known as “General,” Wilburn’s great-great grandfather. Gash had escaped enslavement in Missouri and traveled to Quincy, Illinois, to enlist in the Union Army on Sept. 23, 1863. He then went to Keokuk to serve with the 1st Colored Regiment of Iowa (60th U.S. Colored Infantry), according to decades of genealogy research Wilburn has conducted.

Ross Wilburn, chair of the Iowa Democratic Party. Photo courtesy of Wilburn.

“So I held the sword in my hand,” said Wilburn, who is also a state representative from Ames.

Intriguing clues have enticed Wilburn to follow a trail, from his hometown in Galesburg, Illinois, to Davenport, where his family moved after he finished the fifth grade, in pursuit of learning more about the past.

“To have someone who was in the 1st Iowa Colored Infantry who had escaped slavery and now his great-great grandson is a representative in the Iowa House of Representatives, you kind of get chills thinking about it,” Wilburn said.

Wilburn last month received threats, including lynching, and was called the n-word repeatedly, after he wrote an opinion piece for the Des Moines Register criticizing the Republican Party of Iowa and former president Donald Trump just days before a Trump rally on Oct. 9 at the Iowa State Fairgrounds.

“So, when I get – over time when you hear different comments about Blacks – ‘Why don’t you go back to Africa, go back to your country,’ it’s like, well, yeah, that’s where some of my ancestors came from, and my ancestors sacrificed for this nation, too,” he said.

Iowa State Capitol. Photo by Black Iowa News

Wilburn’s genealogy research has fostered a sense of connection to this country, he said. His family sacrificed for this country and for its survival of the Civil War – despite the fact that they were enslaved, he said. Many families “struggled, suffered and yet sacrificed” in the founding of this country,” he said.

Historians continue to dig for more details about the Black Iowa regiment and the lives they forged after the war ended. Research by Dwain Coleman, a University of Iowa Ph.D. candidate in history and co-director of the Iowa Colored Conventions Digital Project, used military pension records and old newspaper articles to illuminate how Black Civil War veterans and their families built communities in Iowa and fought for civil rights.

“So you kind of collect pieces over the years and it’s kind of putting a puzzle together without all of the pieces in front of you,” Wilburn said.

The African American Civil War Memorial commemorates the service of 209,145 African-American soldiers and sailors who fought for the Union in the United States Civil War. (Photo by ASTRID RIECKEN For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Wilburn learned Gash’s two brothers, Jefferson and Frank, also later escaped and enlisted on Jan. 12, 1864, in Chicago, Illinois, in Company D, of the 29th U.S. Colored Troops, he said. He also reached out to Ancestry Pro Genealogists, a firm that works with Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Finding Your Roots on PBS. The firm found a “goldmine” of military pension records on Gash, which Wilburn is still poring over. The file contained interviews with Gash’s siblings and notes about the regiment and the person who had enslaved the Gash brothers in Palmyra, Missouri, he said.

“Harrison’s pension record was over 300 pages long,” he said. “They said usually the files aren’t that big.”

Wilburn said he served in the Army National Guard for six years and his brother served in Operation Desert Storm. He feels an affirmation and pride at Gash’s military service. Gash was wounded in the battle of Wallace’s Ferry in Helena, Arkansas, he learned. Wilburn has stood in a Galesburg cemetery at Gash’s tombstone, which lists the 60th, he said. He also saw Gash’s name listed at the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C., which includes the names of 209,145 Black Civil War veterans, according to the memorial.

“Your chin goes up a little higher, your chest kind of swells a little bit. What they went though, and to have survived, for me to be here, I mean I get goosebumps just thinking about it,’ he said.

Wilburn has yet to see the 1863 Civil War Battle Flag that was crafted for the regiment by Black women from Keokuk and Muscatine that hangs at the State Historical Building in Des Moines, but he said he expects to have “a visceral, emotional” reaction.

1863 Civil War Battle Flag by Black Iowa women for the 1st Colored Regiment of Iowa (60th U.S. Colored Infantry, which is on display in the State Historical building in Des Moines. Photo by Black Iowa News

Conversations over the years with Wilburn’s granduncle also turned up other nuggets that led to discoveries. A distant relative provided details about Eugene Gash, a pianist who played at Carnegie Hall and was an author. Wilburn wrote to the publisher for a copy of the book, but they didn’t have a copy. But, they had something even better – contact information for Gash’s sister.

“She sent me a picture Harrison Tilford Gash and his wife Anna Maria Dorsey," Wilburn said.

Harrison Tilford Gash and his wife Anna Maria Dorsey. Photo courtesy of Wilburn.

One of Eugene Gash’s signature pieces, “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky, is a song Wilburn remembers well from his high school marching band days playing the clarinet.

“One of my favorite pieces was “Pictures in an exhibition,” he said.

The distant relative also gave him a photocopy of a page from a Bible that someone had brought from his hometown with Gash’s name on it and nearly a dozen other names, including birth and death dates and a person central to Wilburn’s family tree – his great-great-great grandmother, Matilda Gash, who is buried in his hometown.

“I consider myself blessed that I was able to find my third great-grandmother and there are a lot of African Americans in the country who don’t know anything beyond our great-grandparents and nothing before that,” he said.

Read more: Black Civil War Veterans built 'vibrant' Iowa communities

The stories of Black Civil War veterans include a part of Black history and American history that lacks depth and is often glossed over, which pushes aside the stories, sacrifice and struggles of African Americans in this country, he said.

“I think there's an important piece to knowing that history – and the struggles in terms of opportunities – and policies have been written to suppress or not give opportunity to one group of people, and an advantage for some others,” he said. “I think those are important pieces to carry forward.”

Wilburn encourages people to talk with their relatives. He said it’s living history.

“I encourage folks to ask questions about your lineage,” he said. “You just don't know who those folks are – what stories and trials and tribulations they went through and survived that still led for you to be here today.”

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