Panel Discussion Explores Power of Public Monuments

For the first in a series of activities planned in conjunction with the upcoming restoration of the Robert Gould Shaw and 54th Regiment Memorial on the Boston Common, the project’s benefactors sponsored a panel discussion exploring the social and cultural impact of public monuments on Wednesday, Jan. 9, at Tremont Temple.

Derrick Z. Jackson, a renowned author, journalist and photographer, served as the moderator for the symposium called “A Community Conversation: The Power of Public Monuments and Why They Matter”, which included panelists Renee Ater, American Public Art historian; F. Sheffield Hale, president and CEO of the Atlanta History Center; and DeRay Mckesson, Black Lives Matter activist and author of “On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope.” (Michael Creasey, general superintendent of the National Parks Service, was in the audience, but didn’t participate in the panel discussion as scheduled due to the government shutdown.)

The event was presented through a partnership between the Friends of the Public Garden, the City of Boston and the National Parks Service – the three entities underwriting the $2.8 million cost of repairing the bas-relief Shaw Memorial, which despite receiving regular care since it was restored and endowed in 1981, has seen its foundation gradually deteriorate from water damage. The reconstruction project is expected to kick off this spring and last approximately six months, said Liz Vizza, executive director of the Friends group.

In his opening remarks to the panel, Jackson said monuments become “cultural touchstones” that determine “whose stories are told and not told” over time. “Every statue is a story about power…and who should be memorialized,” he said.

Hale responded, “The whole history of this country is fraught…and [now-controversial] monuments give you an opportunity to have that conversation. It all comes down to you have to be very careful about who you put up on a monument and you have to be very careful about who you put up next.”

Of the Shaw Memorial, which was installed in 1897 to commemorate Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th – the first regiment of black troops recruited from the North to fight in the Civil War – Hale said, “There’s nothing in America like it in terms of the time period, subject matter and the beauty of it. These are real people…and it speaks to the agency of the people involved who were freeing themselves.”

McKesson said the Shaw Memorial is significant as the first U.S. monument that brought African-Americans to the forefront by making them “visible” and depicting them as empowered rather than in bondage.

While McKesson suggested that only those in positions of power ultimately decide who are memorialized on major monuments, Ater pointed out that grassroots memorials, such as roadside and street-corner vigils, are commonplace in today’s society.

“We have a memorial culture flowing through us, and we do this individually and in unique ways, ” Atert said. “Monuments don’t always have to be from the top down. We see memorials at the grassroots level all the time.”

As one example of this, Mayer cited the grassroots effort led by two women that led to the creation of the Contrabands and Freedman Cemetery Memorial in Alexandria Va., marking the burial place of 1,800 African-Americans who fled to Alexandria to escape slavery during the Civil War.

When Jackson asked the panel who is most underrepresented in the current inventory of U.S. monuments, Ayer immediately responded “women across all races.” She added that she would like to see an African-American woman besides abolitionist and political activist Harriet Tubman memorialized, since her likeness already appears on around a dozen monuments nationwide.

Hale and McKesson both pointed to the absence of monuments dedicated to the Reconstruction period (circa 1865 to 1877), when the South was rebuilt following the Union victory in the Civil War, as a significant oversight.

            “That’s the untold chapter in U.S. history,” Hale said.

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