In this time of outrage and protest against the killing of innocent Black lives, critical attention has turned to the monuments in our public spaces. Many communities have finally acknowledged that monuments to Confederate heroes were intended to enforce white supremacy and intimidate people of color, newly freed by the Civil War. It is powerful to see that these painful symbols of domination are now beginning to be removed from the public square.
Few realize that Boston’s largest collection of public art is housed in the city’s three downtown historic parks: the Boston Common, the Public Garden, and the Commonwealth Avenue Mall. As the nonprofit and volunteer stewards of these spaces, the Friends of the Public Garden is making a renewed commitment to lift up to scrutiny the lives of those commemorated in our parks.
If the images that these monuments portray, the stories they tell, and the accomplishments they celebrate devalue the lives of people of color, we must confront their impact in the public sector. And we must do so in a way that examines each individually, peeling back the layers of meaning from the façade of stone and bronze.
We need to interrogate these monuments, digging more deeply into the beliefs as well as actions of those who are represented. Who had the agency to choose who was to be commemorated? When was the monument erected and why? What was it meant to convey at that time and to whom? What social and political issues of that time were omitted or altered in lifting up this particular person? How can we interpret these monuments today more honestly and critically?
While there are a number of statues of abolitionists, the record on most if not all is still mixed. Even the most enlightened among those so enshrined held and expressed racist beliefs. Every human being is complicated, and I am not suggesting that we need to apply a purity standard. But we do need to learn who these people were and weren’t, and why they ended up in our parks.
On the Boston Common, across the street from the State House, “Robert Gould Shaw the 54th Massachusetts Regiment Memorial,” by sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, has faced heightened scrutiny itself in the past several weeks. It tells the powerful story of the first Black regiment organized in the North to fight for their freedom in the Civil War. This monument represents the first time that Black men were portrayed as individuals and not as caricatures. The original concept was of Colonel Shaw alone on his horse, but his family wanted him shown with his men. And yet, as was pointed out in The New York Times, still Shaw is the dominant figure in the bas relief, on horseback, in the foreground, as his Black soldiers walk beside him.
With our partners, the National Park Service, the City of Boston, and the Museum of African American History, we are using our restoration of the Shaw memorial as a platform to explore issues of race and social justice. This monument must challenge us on many levels — about the 54th and their march for a more just and free society for all; about how we portray the stories we lift up; about the impact that these representations have on those who visit our public spaces. Art is a catalyst that can bring people together and keep important stories alive. It is now time to acknowledge the full dimension of the stories embedded in each monument, what stories are left out, and the messages they convey about what is and is not valued by our community.
We also must consider who and what we represent in our public spaces going forward. Clearly, right now, it is overwhelmingly white men. Only 17 years ago, the Women’s Memorial was erected on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall. There were those who objected to the concept at the time, feeling that it diminished the power of its message by combining three individually significant voices under one gender umbrella. One of them, literary prodigy Phillis Wheatley — a notable poet and the first African writer published in America — was herself a slave. For too long, the reality of white male history being the only story to tell has been excused as being the product of the times. Tragically, the times, and the consequences for Black lives have not changed significantly enough.
We need to keep unearthing the intricacies of story and myth surrounding our public monuments and take stock of their complete, complex narratives. Doing so provides opportunities for our community to learn more about our collective history, the politics of moments, and whose voices were regarded as legitimate or not. More important, it gives us a basis for determining how we must use public art in public spaces to reflect the diversity of our history and create more inclusive gathering places for the full Boston community.
Liz Vizza is a landscape architect and the executive director of the Friends of the Public Garden.