Journalist Traces His Family's Freedom Fight Across Centuries

AP reporter Darren Sands honors ancestor who fought for Union during Civil War
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 19, 2024 3:18 PM CDT
Journalist Traces His Family's Freedom Fight Across Centuries
The Associated Press religion reporter Darren Sands poses by the gravestone of his great-great-great-great-grandfather and Civil War soldier Hewlett Sands in Westbury, NY, on Monday.   (AP Photo/Lonnie Sands)

Growing up in Roslyn, New York, Darren Sands found holes in his family history. As a journalist, he sought to fill them and uncovered a remarkable story of bravery that played out over a century before his time, less than 10 miles from where he grew up. In 2021, while working on an upcoming book about Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King Jr., Sands learned his great-great-great-great grandfather had fought for the Union during the Civil War. Born into slavery in 1820, seven years before New York banned the practice, Hewlett Sands became the property of a wealthy Long Island family. In 1864, before his 44th birthday, he "would collect a $300 bounty and join the 26th United States Colored Troops infantry regiment" then preparing for war, Darren Sands writes at the AP.

"I have a very strong sense of connection to the idea Hewlett Sands risked his life for not just his family, but for a higher ideal," writes the journalist. "I think all those men shared a sense of doing something that was going to impact generations that they would never meet." That sense of duty pervaded generations. Alonzo Sands, Hewlett's great-grandson and Darren's grandfather, would later serve in World War II. And Darren himself—well, "as a journalist, I feel it's part of my mission to educate and inform people about all this," he writes. "Over the many decades since the Civil War, there was a lot of displacement among my ancestors; people moved away and never came back and a lot of our family stories were lost."

And our generations lose something when ancestors' stories are forgotten. For Darren, the story of his relative "helped me understand where I came from and who I was." Today, Hewlett is among 200,000 Black Union Army soldiers whose names are etched on the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, DC. "This Juneteenth I'm returning to the memorial to honor him and all who served our country, one that spent its first two centuries seeing most of its Black people as someone else's property," Sands writes. "In a special ceremony, I'll carry on the more than 150-year-old commemoration of enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, finding out on June 19, 1865, that they'd been freed." Read more on Sands' investigation here. (More Juneteenth stories.)

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