The fencing around the Shaw Memorial, a bronze depiction of pioneering Black Civil War soldiers, now features an installation including photos, letters, and information about a historic regiment that will remain in place until the monument’s renovation is completed in six months.
The Boston Common memorial shows Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, who was white, riding alongside the volunteer, all-Black 54th regiment. Renowned for their charge at Fort Wagner, the group aided the Union Army effort in the 1860s.
Just across from the State House, the memorial site marks the beginning of the Boston Black Heritage trail.
“What is remarkable about this piece is that it’s one of the first times Black people were shown as individual people, as humans,” said Liz Vizza, executive director of the Friends of the Public Garden, which is part of the Partnership to Renew the Shaw 54th Memorial Regiment. “The installation reflects that.”
The 900-foot wall features recruiting signs, archived letters, and images of the men the memorial honors. It also includes insights on pivotal moments of Black history and details about memorial sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Quotes from abolitionists Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, whose two sons enlisted, are also exhibited on the 6-foot-tall fence on Beacon and Park streets.
Historians from the National Park Service compiled the research used in the installation.
Through December, parts of the monument will be shipped to Woburn and Lenox for repair. Organizers have put up a high-resolution, full-scale image of the monument for visitors to view during its absence.
“When we take this monument offsite, we wanted to make sure people could not only have the experience of the monument itself from its image, but could understand the story and its significance to our collective history,” Vizza said. “There are tens of thousands of people that walk by every day without realizing what it talks about — the greatness of [the regiment’s] story.”
Monument renovations began on May 20, almost five years after stone conservators discovered water had damaged the site’s brick core. The construction is part of a $3 million restoration of the 123-year-old piece. Without the repairs, the memorial is vulnerable to additional water exposure and seismic events.
The installation is funded by the City of Boston, Friends of the Public Garden, National Park Service, and Museum of African-American History.
Vizza said the new makeshift exhibit carries additional value during the pandemic, when museums and educational institutions are closed.
“These are museum-quality images and stories right in the Boston Common for everyone to see,” she said. “When we can’t go inside and learn about these things in the normal facilities, this takes on so much more meaning.”
A Korean War veteran with two bronze stars, Patrick Francis Barba said he was delighted to have stumbled by the exhibit Thursday.
“It is really impressive,” said Barba, 88. “I learned about how they recruited Black soldiers and about Frederick Douglass’ sons. I liked to learn what the 54th regiment did for our country. It makes me proud.”
The Shaw Memorial was one of 11 sites vandalized in the initial days of the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted throughout the city in late May. It was tagged with expletives, anti-police slogans, and the words “RIP George Floyd,” in reference to the Minneapolis man who died in late May when a police officer pressed a knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
Diti Kohli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @ditikohli_