As part of the programming planned in conjunction with the ongoing restoration of the Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Regiment Memorial on the Boston Common, a virtual discussion took place Monday, Aug. 25, on reconsidering and reevaluating the nation’s public monuments during “a time of racial reckoning.”
Renée Ater, Associate Professor Emerita at the University of Maryland and the author of “Remaking Race and History: The Sculpture of Meta Warrick Fuller,” among other books, was joined for the talk by David Blight, a Sterling Professor of American History at Yale University who has written and edited numerous books, including his latest – a 2018 biography of black abolitionist Frederick Douglass that earned him a Pulitzer Prize for History. Karen Holmes Ward, director of public affairs and community services for WCVB-TV, as well as host and executive producer of its award-winning weekly series “CityLine” and the co-producer of “Return to Glory,” a documentary about the 54th, served as moderator, and like the approximately $3 million restoration of the Shaw 54th memorial itself, the discussion was sponsored via a partnership comprising the Friends of the Public Garden, the City of Boston, the Museum of African American History and the National Park Service.
The Shaw 54th Memorial is unique in “a landscape of generic Civil War monuments,” Blight said, because it distinctly captures a historic moment on May 28, 1863, when 1,007 black soldiers and 37 white soldiers from the 54th gathered on the Boston Common and marched down Beacon Street in front of the State House. After boarding a steamship to South Carolina later that evening, the regiment went on to fight in Charleston, S.C., in the Battle of Grimball’s Landing on July 16, 1863, and in the fateful Second Battle of Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863. About half the ranks of the 54th would end up dead, missing or later die of injuries sustained in those battles, Blight said.
The memorial, which was the first civic monument in the nation to pay tribute to the heroism of black soldiers, also effectively mixes realism as seen in the soldiers’ faces, Blight said, with elements of idealism as represented by the angelic figure that hovers above them.
Ayer, who also participated in “The Power of Public Monuments and Why They Matter,” the first panel discussion the Partnership to Restore the Shaw 54th Memorial sponsored last year at Suffolk University’s Tremont Temple, said crafting the soldiers’ heads was no easy task and required sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, to create 40 castings to capture their 23 individual faces. (No surviving members of the 54th were selected as face models, however, and Saint-Gaudens instead found his models in bus stations and at various other locations throughout Boston.)
The angelic figure above them, Ayer said, is an allegorical representation of a female holding an olive branch to symbolize peace, as well as poppy leaves to represent death.
The Shaw 54th Memorial also successfully merges and incorporates three distinct styles of sculpture – equestrian, bas-relief and allegorical representation. “No other monument can make these three forms come together,” Ayer said.
Blight pointed out that the memorial represents “promise and betrayal” when considering that the freedoms that the soldiers of the 54th fought and died for went largely unfulfilled during their lifetimes. But he disagreed with the notion that the sculpture depicts the black soldiers as being subservient to Shaw, a white man, and instead, Blight countered that it accurately reflects the regiment’s formation going into battle, and that the soldiers appear to in fact be pushing Shaw forward.
The monument is also significant in that it was “planted” on the Boston Common on May 31, 1897, Blight said, at a time when American race relations were as fraught as they’d ever been, and with lynchings taking place both the day before and after its unveiling.
As more public monuments across the country are coming under scrutiny, Ayer suggested putting a moratorium on creating new ones “as we fundamentally rewrite history.”
Moreover, Ayer added, “Certain monuments are no longer effective…[because] they set in stone in public places what many of us think of as false narratives.”
Ayer also believes there needs to be a “community conversation” before any new public monument is erected.
“You don’t plop monuments in people’s neighborhoods and say, ‘Deal with it.’ You ask them to get involved,” Ayer said. “You could build a monument on Boston Common right now, and in 20 years, someone would want to tear it down.”
Except in unique instances, such as considering the future of 13 Civil War statues in the collection of National Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C., Blight agreed the fate of public monuments should be largely left to the judgment of the communities where they’re located.
“Communities have to decide, a city has to decide,” said Blight, who added, however, that he opposes the removal of public monuments from cemeteries.
As he previously proposed in a July 17 New York Times opinion piece, Blight recommended the creation of a national arts commission to determine the best practices and engage new artists as the “Confederate landscape [continues to] come down.”
Looking at how other countries and cultures have handled “conflicted and divisive” chapters in their histories, Blight said, should also be considered in deciding the future of public monuments in the U.S.
“You’ve got to be deliberative,” he said of the process, “and you should try to learn some history.”