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Published: Wednesday, 2/10/2010

Monroe exhibit tells history of 4 generations of escaped slave's family


MONROE - There was a touch of irony to Aaron Bromley's life.

Born into slavery in 1825, Bromley escaped from an Alabama plantation to find refuge in Monroe, only to return later to battle Confederate troops who opposed his freedom.

The legacy of Bromley and the generations of his family who lived in Monroe until 1928 are chronicled in a special exhibit this month at the Monroe County Historical Museum.

Chris Kull, museum archivist who researched the exhibit, said Mr. Bromley fled from slave owners in Florence in 1862 to find freedom in Monroe.

In making the city his home, he worked as a laborer and enlisted in what was called the First Michigan Colored Infantry in Detroit in August, 1864, after the northern states permitted African-Americans to serve in the military.

"In the first couple of years of the Civil War, the army didn't allow blacks to fight. They thought they were inferior," said David Ingall, a Civil War historian and former assistant museum director.

A soldier in Company C of the 102nd C, Bromley was sent with his unit to South Carolina, where he became sick and saw little action, staying bedridden in a camp hospital. He was discharged in May, 1864.

According to Mr. Ingall's research, Bromley is not the only local African American to have fought against the Confederacy.

John Williams, who, like Bromley is buried in Monroe's historic Woodland Cemetery, enlisted in the First Michigan Colored Infantry in November, 1864, and mustered in September, 1865, at Charleston, S.C.

"They are the only two black soldiers who I have found that are buried in Woodland Cemetery," he said.

There were 208,000 soldiers who fought with the U.S. Colored Troops. Their names are on the nine-foot Spirit of Freedom bronze sculpture at the African-American Civil War Memorial in Washington.

"It is a great story and a great thing that the museum is doing to honor these African-Americans during Black History Month," Mr. Ingall said. " People often don't realize that we had black citizens in the Army from Monroe. They don't realize what they did for their country."

After the war, Bromley returned to Monroe and married Ellen Cox in 1866. They raised two sons, James and Noel.

Alcayde Bromley, James' son, graduated in 1910 from Monroe High School, where he was a standout in football, track, and baseball.

A talented musician, Alcayde Bromley played the piano, mandolin, and cornet in the high school orchestra and attended the Toledo Conservatory of Music, and found a career in the field. He died in 1928.

The exhibit runs through February. The museum at 126 South Monroe St. is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.

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