Article

The Ongoing March: Commemoration and Activism at the Robert Gould Shaw/54th Regiment Memorial

The Robert Gould Shaw Massachusetts 54th Regiment Memorial
The Robert Gould Shaw Massachusetts 54th Regiment Memorial

NPS Photo/Teuten

With its dedication in 1897, Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Robert Gould Shaw/54th Regiment Memorial became a permanent fixture in Boston’s cultural landscape. Located on the corner of Boston Common, directly across from the Massachusetts State House, the Memorial proudly stands as a lasting reminder to one of the first and most influential Black regiments of the Civil War. Colonel Shaw and many of his men died during their heroic assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina in July 1863. This monument stands as a powerful testament to the ideals for which they fought and died.

Since its unveiling, the Memorial has played an integral role in our ongoing national story. It provides a sacred place where the military honors its legacy. It serves as a prominent and meaningful gathering space for activists. It has inspired poetry, music, and film. It continues to provoke and engage people from across the city, the nation, and the world.

This evolving exhibition explores some ways in which people have used the Memorial since its dedication to help us better understand its profound legacy and ongoing role in our national conversations of race, justice, and freedom.

54th Regiment marching in rows by the Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial.Veterans of the 54th Regiment at the dedication of the Memorial. (Credit: Massachusetts Historical Society)

May 31, 1897: Dedication of the Robert Gould Shaw/54th Massachusetts Regiment Memorial

On May 31, 1897, the dedication and unveiling ceremony of the Robert Gould Shaw/54th Massachusetts Regiment Memorial drew dignitaries and military groups from across the country along with thousands of spectators. Surviving members of the 54th came to honor their fallen colonel and fellow soldiers. Artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens witnessed this powerful moment and wrote:

There stood before the relief 65 of these veterans… Many of them were bent and crippled, many with white heads, some with bouquets. The impression of those old soldiers, passing the spot where they left for war so many years before, thrills me even as I write these words… They seemed as if returning from the war, the troops of bronze marching the opposite direction...the young men there represented now showing these veterans the vigor and hope of youth. It was a consecration.1

In his speech at the dedication, Boston Mayor Josiah Quincy said that if people:

...ever doubt as to the future of American political institutions, if they ever despair of the republic, may they here gather new inspiration and courage; may they here more fully realize that the country of freemen which was worth dying for a generation ago is worth living for now and hereafter…2

Booker T. Washington, in his keynote speech at the dedication, said the monument stands “for effort, not victory complete.” He called people to continued action by saying, “What these heroic souls of the 54th Regiment began, we must complete.”3

Newspaper article titled Shaw's Nurse at Memorial with a portrait of Harriet Tubman.Harriet Tubman, who served as a nurse and scout during the Civil War, visited the Memorial in 1905. (Credit: Boston Herald)

May 31, 1905: "A Silent Tear for the Departed Dead"

One of the most consistent uses of the Memorial has been as a commemorative space for the military. Local newspapers reported on annual ceremonies at the monument on Memorial Day, Fort Wagner Day (July 18), and, later, Armistice/Veterans Day. Local Black veterans’ organizations, including the Robert A. Bell Post, the Robert G. Shaw Veterans Association, and the Peter Salem Garrison, organized and participated in many of these events.

The 1905 Memorial Day ceremony included all three Black veteran organizations along with a legendary guest of honor. According to the Boston Herald, “A fitting tribute was paid his [Shaw’s] memory yesterday at the memorial on the Common, when three organizations met and performed their duty of love and reverence.” Civil War veteran and Underground Railroad leader Harriet Tubman attended the ceremony. Tubman “bent with the weight of years, gazed long and tenderly on the magnificent work of the sculptor and dropped a silent tear for the departed dead.” Tubman “gave Col. Shaw his last breakfast before going into battle which cost him his life," the article said, and “also nursed the wounded of her own race who had the good fortune to return alive from the terrible charge on Fort Wagner.”4

Newspaper article titled At Shaw Monument.At a Memorial Day event in 1909, commemorators protested Southern racist laws and violence. (Credit: Boston Herald)

May, 1909: "The Heavens Will Fall"

Oftentimes, commemorative military ceremonies at the memorial carried a strong activist message as well. These patriotic events served as powerful forums to protest the ongoing racial injustice and violence in the country. Historian Lois Brown wrote of this phenomenon:

Fueled by African American patriotism, chapters like the Robert A. Bell Post 134 used Memorial Day events to protest Southern lynching and to prepare a collective black urban response to Southern mob violence.5

For example, in a 1909 Memorial Day event at the monument, local leaders protested Southern racist laws and violence. The Reverend B.W. Farris of St. Paul’s Baptist Church addressed the crowd:

‘The South will never consider this problem solved until they get the negro back into slavery,' cried the preacher, ‘and before they do that the heavens will fall. No, they won’t do that. Look here!’ And he raised his right hand to the tip of the sword in the hand of the figure of Robert Gould Shaw in the memorial tablet.6
Newspaper article titled Along the Route With the Marching Veterans with a portrait of M. Jameson, veteran of the 54th Regiment sitting in front of the 54th Regiment Memorial.M. Jameson, veteran of the 54th, seated before the Memorial in 1917. (Credit: Boston Globe)

August, 1917: "That's My Regiment!"

A grand military parade through Boston in 1917 featured veterans from past wars to inspire the “boys of 1917” as Americans began heading off to fight in World War I. Veterans of the 54th joined the procession, but one veteran did not pay heed to the Governor nor the dignitaries on the reviewing stand by the State House. A journalist observed that the veteran:

saw only something opposite the State House which meant more to him than the whole encampment. Comrades tried to keep him in line as they smartened their step at the crest of the hill and turned their faces toward the Governor. But they couldn’t. He stopped short in his tracks. 'That’s my regiment!' he cried, and his right hand came up to his hat brim. He saluted Col. Robert Gould Shaw, and friendly volunteers from the sidelines led him out of the ranks. They thought he was overcome by the pull up the hill or bewildered by the cheering. But he wasn’t. He simply wanted to salute his comrades in bronze. And they led him to the base of the Shaw monument at the tablet until they brought him a chair. There he sat. The parade was over so far as he was concerned. He wanted to go no further. He was a colored veteran, 'M. Jameson of Syracuse N.Y. of Co. H of the 54th Massachusetts, Capt Russell in command, sir!'7
Veteran sitting in front of the 54th Regiment Memorial with a wreath.54th veteran Rev. E. George Biddle attended many Memorial Day commemorations at the memorial. (Credit: Boston Herald)

May, 1939: "Too Tired Now to March"

As the decades progressed, age and death took its toll on veterans of the Civil War. Well into the 1930s, however, there remained a few notable exceptions. For example, on Memorial Day 1936, two veterans of the 54th attended the ceremonies at the Memorial, Rev. E. George Biddle and William H. Jackson. Biddle’s young grandson accompanied his grandfather:

The two old men and the little boy sat at the foot of the statue... There were eight Negro veterans of the World War in uniform, and a dozen women of the W.R.C. [Women’s Relief Corps] in white dresses, flanking the monument. All sang 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic,' their eyes on the faces of those marching men in stone that St Gaudens chiseled from live models... Folks passing on Beacon st stopped to listen and some stayed to admire the detail of the marching men in stone and to compare their faces with the two old men who sat at the base of the monument. Too tired now to march, they climbed into a waiting bus after the exercises, and were carried over the hill to the meal that was set for them at their post by the faithful women in the white dresses.8

By Memorial Day 1937, the Robert Bell Post 134 remained “the only Negro G.A.R. Post in Metropolitan Boston.” Rev. Dr. George Biddle, 92 years old and the sole survivor of the post, led the exercises. Boy Scouts, the Women’s Relief Corps, teachers and ministers took part in the program as well. Biddle’s final Memorial Day took place in 1939. At the ceremony, he “smiled and nodded his head in recognition of the speeches addressed to him during a two-hour ceremony at the Shaw Memorial steps on Boston Common.”9 He died in April the following year.

Newspaper clipping with portrait of Ralph J. Banks, and African American man.While arguing for the passage of the Fair Employment Practice Act, activist Ralph J. Banks notably told the Legislative Committee, "You Can't Eat the Shaw Memorial." (Credit: Boston Globe)

March, 1945: "You Can't Eat The Shaw Memorial"

In March 1945, African American activist Ralph J. Banks evoked the Memorial in his address to a Legislative Committee at the Massachusetts State House. Banks served as vice president of the Boston Equal Rights League, a civil rights organization founded in 1901 by Black activist William Monroe Trotter. Trotter’s father served in the 55th Massachusetts, the second Black regiment from the state during the Civil War.

At this hearing, Banks urged state officials to adopt a Fair Employment Practice Act to combat discrimination in the work force. He said:

You can’t have a job in this state if you are a black man, in the ordinary course of events...But we are human beings and we are going to eat...You have given us monuments. You have given us the Shaw monument opposite the State House, but we can’t eat monuments.

This legislation called for a commission that would “settle complaints of discrimination on grounds of race, religious belief, color, national ancestry or origin.”10 Supporters included members of several labor and civil rights groups, as well as the clergy and other civic and political organizations. Massachusetts adopted the Fair Employment Practice Law in 1946.

Newspaper article with image of protesters standing in front of the Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial.Boston activists gathered in front of the Memorial following the assassination of Medgar Evers. (Credit: Boston Globe)

June, 1963: The Commemoration of Medgar Evers

Following the assassination of African American civil rights leader Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi in 1963, Boston activists staged an event on Boston Common “to honor the memory of the slain Mississippi Negro leader and further the extension of democracy in America.” Sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), this event also served as a voting registration drive for many Black Bostonians. The NAACP estimated that, at the time, only half of the city’s 30,000 eligible African Americans had registered to vote. Massachusetts Attorney General Edward Brooke, the first African American to hold this position, joined other leaders at the event and called for the end of racial discrimination in unions, education, and housing. Brooke said, “We have made some strides in Boston, but let’s face it, we still have segregation in Boston, particularly in the fields of education and in the employment of skilled and unskilled labor.” His words foreshadowed the imminent battles over equal school access that soon engulfed the city.

As part of this demonstration, participants paused at the Shaw/54th Regiment Memorial on their way to the Parkman Bandstand in Boston Common.11

Newspaper image of protestors at the Shaw MemorialOn the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, Alpha Phi Alpha members marched to the Memorial to protest against segregation in Boston public schools. (Credit: Boston Herald)

August, 1963: "We Want Freedom Today"

1963 marked the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation as well as the formation of the 54th Regiment. In August that year, Alpha Phi Alpha, the first intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternity established for African American men, met in Boston. To show solidarity with the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in its efforts to gain equal access to public education:

500 fraternity members marched to Boston Common to the statue of Col. Robert Gould Shaw…the group paraded past the Boston School Committee on Beacon street in a protest against alleged de facto segregation in public schools here.12

One newspaper article described the event:

Waving small American flags, fraternity members said they were protesting in behalf of the local NAACP’s fight against school segregation. They also observed the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation in ceremonies before the statue of Col. Robert Gould Shaw.13

The fraternity’s history director and president of Central State College, Charles Wesley, told the group, “We are having our call to arms to fight for freedom in the U.S…God help the rest of the nation if segregation can be carried on in Boston, the cradle of liberty…We want freedom today.”14

Typed document of a statement calling for people to march.The Boston Ministerial Alliance called for clergy and citizens of Roxbury to gather in front the Memorial to protest school segregation. (Credit: Northeastern University)

June, 1965: "So That Our Voices and Numbers Will Be Heard"

The Memorial became an important gathering space for activists in the ongoing movement for civil rights and equal education. For example, in this 1965 press release from the Boston Ministerial Alliance, Reverend Robert L. Pruitt called on “every responsible pastor and every thinking citizen of Roxbury” to meet “in front of the Shaw Memorial.” “We will gather there in order to prepare our March on the School Committee so that our voices and numbers will be heard,” he said, as the School Committee met to decide “what action they will take on the issue of racial imbalance in our schools.”15

Newspaper image titled Vets for Peace of protestors walking the Freedom Trail.A diverse group of activists protest the Vietnam War at the Memorial in August 1969. (Credit: Boston Herald)

August, 1969: The War at Home

This memorial to fallen soldiers of the Civil War also provided an important rally point in the anti-war protests of the late 1960s and early 1970s which drew student groups, clergy, and civil rights organizations among others. For example, in August of 1969, over 250 anti-war demonstrators walked the Freedom Trail to mark the twenty-fourth anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This event, sponsored by more than twenty organizations, including the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee AFL-CIO, a Puerto Rican independence committee, and local socialist and communist groups, brought awareness to a variety of causes in addition to their anti-Vietnam War message. According to the Boston Herald:

The march ended with a rally at the Shaw Memorial…Several speakers, including spokesmen for the Black Panther Party and Students for a Democratic Society, called for ‘armed revolution against imperialism’ in the U.S.

This “plea for revolution at home,” the Herald continued, “sparked no noticeable protest from the demonstrators, who represented diverse causes and ideologies.”16

Protests such as this, both for and against American engagement in Vietnam, continued until the end of the war at and around the Memorial.

Protestors climbing the Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial.Demonstrators protest busing at the Memorial. (Credit: Boston Herald)

1973: The Backlash to Integration

As part of the battles that raged in Boston over equal access to public schools, thousands of demonstrators gathered in April 1973 at the Memorial to protest the Racial Imbalance Law and the impending court-ordered busing of students in an attempt to integrate the schools. Leaders of protest included former U.S. Representative Louise Day Hicks who said, “You will be criticized for your efforts by some, labeled bigot by others…But do not be discouraged.” Students at the protest vowed that “no black student will come into Southie.” A picture accompanying a Boston Herald article shows a number of White students and adults in front of and on the Memorial itself holding placards reading “No Bussing In Southie” and “Stop Bussing Charlestown.”17

Similarly in 1979, as the school fight continued, White students held a rally in which they hung a “White People’s Rights” placard on the memorial. An article in the Boston Herald noted that student who hung the sign and his fellow protesters:

had climbed all over the city’s famous Robert Gould Shaw Memorial yesterday without apparently realizing that is a tribute to one of the nation’s earlier instances of racial integration…It was all there for the students to read in clear letters on the statue, but they apparently didn’t bother to do so. And they apparently didn’t notice that the troops behind Shaw on his horse were black.18
Newspaper article called Boston service launches 'love thy neighbor' campaign with an image of religious leaders.Religious leaders gather at the Memorial to launch the “Love Thy Neighbor” Campaign in 1979. (Credit: Springfield Union)

1979: "Love Thy Neighbor"

To combat the ongoing and explosive racial divide in the city, interfaith leaders held a “love thy neighbor” campaign in 1979. An estimated 4,000 people attended the ecumenical service. According to the Springfield Union, “In the shadow of a memorial to black Civil War soldiers on historic Boston Common, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim leaders launched a drive for racial harmony in this troubled city.”19

In keeping with this move toward racial healing as well as to rectify years of corrosion from acid rain and vandalism, concerned leaders formed the Committee to Save the Shaw/54th Regiment Memorial in the early 1980s. Co-chairman John D. O’ Bryant discussed the symbolism of the Shaw in the context of a city racially divided over the issue of equal school access. He said, “The monument portrays something we all should be striving for – access, equality and an improved way of life.” Another committee member, John T. Galvin, wrote that:

No memorial in the United States symbolizes so vividly what the country should stand for, as the Shaw/54th Regiment monument atop Beacon Hill…the bronze and marble of the Shaw/54th Regiment Memorial gives us a handsome and stirring symbol of blacks and whites fighting side by side in a common human cause of the highest kind…the committee hopes Boston’s school children – both black and white – will learn what the monument stands for. The example set for us more than a century ago is one we can follow now.20
General Colin Powell saluting in front of the Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial.General Colin Powell attended the centennial celebration of the Memorial. (Credit: Boston Globe)

1997: "A Perpetual Campaign for Righteousness"

In 1997, the Memorial celebrated its centennial with a grand public ceremony. Featured speakers included Massachusetts Governor William Weld, descendants of the 54th, and renowned historians such as Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and David Blight. A significant number of Civil War reenactors added to the commemoration in a giant encampment. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell, the first African American to hold this position, provided the keynote address. “To my dying day,” Powell said, “I will not forget that I became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff because of the 54th Regiment.”21

In the words of General Powell:

The Saint-Gaudens Memorial speaks to us of our past, speaks to us of our present, and reminds us of the continuing challenges that will face us in the future…When we look at this great memorial, we see soldiers looking to the front, marching solidly and straight ahead on a perpetual campaign for righteousness led by their brave colonel. So let us too follow these heroes. So let us carry on the work to make this God-given, beloved country of ours an even more perfect Union, a land of liberty and justice for all.22
Aerial view of people standing around a speaker.Participants gather at the Memorial for the annual Reading Frederick Douglass event. (Credit: NPS Photo)

2009: Reading Frederick Douglass

Following the election of President Barack Obama, local activists and cultural institutions began an annual tradition at the Memorial to keep conversations of race, equality, and social activism from falling out of public discourse. Every July, several hundred people gather at the Memorial to collectively read Frederick Douglass’ scathing critique of the United States “What is the 4th of July to the Negro?” Writing of the first communal reading event in 2009, David Harris, one of the co-founders of the event, wrote:

I witnessed an extraordinary visual moment that has confirmed my belief that we have a remarkable opportunity to engage in that dialogue, nationally and in Boston…Those to the right, to the left, and directly above me were open to listening to the experiences of others. They appeared ready, in a way the generation before them were not, to engage in honest dialogue about our racial past and what that means to our future.23
Members of the Partnership to Renew the Shaw/54th Memorial standing in front of the restored Memorial.Members of the Committee to Renew the Shaw/54th Regiment Memorial and local leaders at the unveiling of the newly restored monument in May, 2021. (Credit: NPS Photo/Gould)

2018-2021: "It Reminds Us of What is Possible"

In 2018, the City of Boston, the Friends of the Public Garden, the Museum of African American History, and the National Park Service formed the Committee to Renew the Shaw/54th Regiment Memorial. In addition to stabilizing the monument and restoring the bronze relief, this project seeks to engage the public in larger discussions of race and justice. In a July 2018 ceremony officially launching the project, Boston Mayor Martin Walsh said:

This is one of the most important pieces of art in the United States of America and we are deeply proud to have that piece here in the city of Boston…It reminds us of what is possible in our city when we live by our highest ideals…Boston is proud, but we can’t rest on that pride…Instead we must use that pride to set a standard for today and have conversations we need to reach that standard. That’s what this memorial project will help us do.24

The restoration of the Memorial and the accompanying Community Conversations took place against the backdrop of the global pandemic as well as the racial protests and unrest following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020.

Following more than a year of preservation work, the newly restored Shaw/54th Massachusetts Regiment Memorial reopened to the public on Memorial Day weekend 2021.

To read more about this project and watch the Community Conversations please visit Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial | Friends of the Public Garden

Footnotes:

1. "The Shaw Memorial: A Celebration of an American Masterpiece" (Eastern National, 2002), 39.

2. The Monument to Robert Gould Shaw: Its Inception, Completion and Unveiling, 1865-1897 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1897), 69-70.

3. The Monument to Robert Gould Shaw, 93.

4. "Shaw's Nurse at Memorial," Boston Herald, May 31, 1905.

5. Lois Brown, Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins: Black Daughter of the Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 165.

6. "At Shaw Monument," Boston Herald, June 1, 1909.

7. "Along the Route with the Marching Veterans," Boston Globe, August 22, 1917.

8. "Vivid Stories Told By Lone Survivors," Boston Daily Globe, May 31, 1936.

9. Boston Herald, May 31, 1939.

10. " 'Black American' Asks Passage of Anti-Bias Bill," Boston Globe, March 20, 1945, 1, 19.

11. "Negro Voter Drive at Evers Rites," Boston Globe, June 26, 1963, 8.

12. "We'll 'Catch Hell' Integrating Schools," Boston Herald, August 21, 1963.

13. "Peabody Unit Urges School 'Rights' Study," Boston Record American, August 21, 1963.

14."500 in Fraternity March on Hub School Hqs.," Boston Traveler, August 20, 1963.

15. Phyllis M. Ryan, "Roxbury clergy and citizens asked to march on School Committee on Monday night June 14th" (Boston, Massachusetts: School Committee of Boston, June 11, 1965), Northeastern University Library.

16. "War Protesters Walk Freedom Trail," Boston Herald, August 10, 1969.

17. "Sargent, White Fail to Meet Bus Protesters," Boston Herald, April 4, 1973.

18. "History of Abuse repeated," Boston Herald, October 20, 1979.

19. "Boston service launches 'love thy neighbor' campaign," Springfield Union, November 20, 1979.

20. "The Shaw Memorial: Stirring symbol of fighting together," Boston Herald, February 22, 1981.

21. "Powell hails Civil War regiment," Boston Globe, June 1, 1997.

22. Martin Blatt, Thomas J. Brown, Donald Yacovone, eds, Hope and Glory: Essays of the Legacy of the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Regiment (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001), xx.

23. "The time to talk about racial divide," Boston Globe, July 4, 2009.

24. "Facelift for Civil War Memorial on Common to spark talks on race," Boston Globe, July 27, 2018.

Boston African American National Historic Site

Last updated: February 9, 2022