I was introduced to Capt. Sylvester Henry Epps, a Washington native, while visiting the Freedom Museum in Old Town Manassas.
Epps had an interesting career. He served in both the U.S. Army and the French Army. It is a story that would have never been told if Jim Ortte hadn’t walked into a thrift store and bought a box of World War I artifacts. The artifacts belonged to Epps.
Recognizing the historical value of his purchase, Ortte donated the artifacts to the Freedom Museum in Manassas. Pixologie Digital Solutions, a Prince William County business, took on the task of tracking down the only known photo of Epps and donated the result to the museum.
Epps was a captain in the District of Columbia National Guard. His unit was deployed to Europe during World War I. American commanders refused to let Black and white soldiers fight in the same unit, but French leaders had no such objection. So Epps’ regiment was assigned to the French 157th “Red Hand” Division, which fought with distinction.
According to History of the American Negro in the Great World War by W. Allison Sweeney: “No other regiment of the 93rd Division made a more gallant record than the 372nd regiment. Throughout its service in France it was a part of the famous French 157th Division known as the ‘Red Hand’ division, under the command of General Goybet. It was this division which first opposed the Huns at the Marne in 1914. To brigade the Negro soldiers with such famous veterans was a rare mark of distinction and placed the black men on their mettle at all times.”
Epps fought two wars: racism at home and in the military, and the German Army abroad. He was a hero in both.
There is more to his story. If you want to learn the rest, I suggest you stop by the new home of Prince William’s Freedom Museum to learn about Epps and many other heroes who fought for the freedom we enjoy today.
The Freedom Museum has moved from the Manassas Airport to what many of us affectionately remember as Prospero’s Books on Center Street in Old Town. Make it a day trip. It is in the heart of many restaurants, craft stores, galleries and other attractions. There is plenty of parking at the multi-level garage nearby, and it is next to the Amtrak/VRE Station. If all goes as planned, the museum will open on July 4.
This is an all-volunteer operation. Active-duty military, vets and those who love us are welcome to keep the legacy of freedom alive by donating a little time to this operation. The museum also has expenses. Those who wish to invest in remembering those who have served in wars past and present with your time, money or both can learn more at their website.
If you happen across a box of artifacts or souvenirs from wars past, or wonder what to do with your ancestor’s old uniform, medals and gear, consider taking them to the Wartime Museum so they may be considered for exhibit. Heroes live forever. We must be reminded who they are now and then.
Captain Epps is buried at Arlington Cemetery in the company of other heroes. Exhibits such as those found at the Freedom Museum keep the legacy of men and women such as Epps alive in our memories. That legacy endures only if you care enough to visit the museums that honor them.