The Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Regiment Memorial was one of 16 public art works damaged when thousands of protesters swarmed Boston Common on Sunday night.
A $3-million dollar restoration project for the sculpture dedicated to the African American soldiers who fought in the Civil War was granted clearance just last week. The outbreak of the coronavirus had delayed the project.
The conservator's recent prep work protected the front of the bronze relief with plywood, but its granite backside was vandalized with four-letter words and phrases including “Black Lives Matter,” “No Justice, No Peace,” and “Police are Pigs.”
“This monument is considered one of the nation's greatest pieces of public art and the greatest piece to come out of the Civil War,” said Liz Vizza, executive director of the Friends of the Public Garden, “It was, amazingly enough, dedicated 123 years ago on May 31st – the day it was defaced.”
The Friends of the Public Garden cares for 42 works in that park, along Commonwealth Avenue and on Boston Common, including the monument to Shaw and his men.
“How do we make silent stone speak?” Vizza asked while acknowledging the controversial issue — and fact — of there being, "too many dead white men in parks."
But this sculpture celebrates men of color, Vizza said, "which I want to lift up. How do we help people understand the power in these monuments?”
The Shaw Memorial captures the likenesses of the first African American volunteer infantry unit – the 54th Massachusetts Regiment – that fought after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Their colonel, Robert Gould Shaw, advocated for the men to join the war because they desperately wanted to fight for freedom. If the soldiers had been captured in battle they could have been enslaved or killed. Their heroic story was recounted in the 1989 Hollywood film “Glory.”
“They did fight in a major battle at Fort Wagner. And many of them were killed, including Shaw,” Vizza said. They were buried together in a mass grave.
When it came time to memorialize Shaw, his family wanted him to be shown not alone, but with his men, Vizza said. The renowned sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens won the commission to create a large-scale bronze relief. With the help of African American models, Vizza explained how he executed a work that showed the Black soldiers as human beings, not caricatures. Saint-Gaudens worked for 14 years to finish the piece before it debuted in 1897.
“It was unprecedented,” Vizza said. “As soon as they unveiled it, it was clear that this was greatness, that this was a great monument.”
In the 1980s, the Friends of the Public Garden raised money to repair the historic object which had fallen into major disrepair. They also started an endowment for it's upkeep. Five years ago their conservator noticed displaced stones and discovered the foundation was deteriorating because of water damage.
The Shaw Monument is also cared for by the City of Boston (which owns the work), the National Park Service and the Museum of African American History. It's the first stop on the Black Heritage Trail, “right across from the State House, speaking truth to power,” Vizza said, adding its location in Boston Common makes the recent defacement even more upsetting and confusing.
“What is so hard to see is that there was a legitimate protest, and the Boston Common is the center stage of civic life in our city,” she said, adding it's served as a safe space for freedom of speech over generations.
It was painful for Vizza to wake up Monday morning and find her office's windows near the corner or Charles and Beacon streets shattered and the monuments she loves covered in graffiti.
But Vizza said the Friends and the city rallied quickly to carefully clean all 16 damaged works including the 9/11 Memorial in the Public Garden and the statue of Abigail Adams on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall. They finished on Tuesday.
Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to Abigail Adams as Abigail Williams, and described the granite backside of the Shaw Memorial as concrete. We regret the errors.