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‘This monument honors a community’: After 125 years, the restored 54th Memorial is rededicated

A wreath was placed during the Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial rededication.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Doreen Wade of Dracut thought of her ancestor Charles Augustus Potter, an infantryman from Pittsfield who assaulted Fort Wagner, S.C., in 1863 with the famed 54th Massachusetts, the first Black regiment formed in the Northeast during the Civil War.

Wade thought of his courage, and that of his comrades, as she watched a solemn rededication Wednesday of the memorial to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the men of the 54th, nearly half of whom were killed, wounded, or went missing during the unsuccessful attack.

“This is my legacy. This is my heritage. This is who I am,” Wade said. “I know that he made me what I am today.”

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In a moving ceremony, the bronze masterpiece by Augustus Saint-Gaudens was lauded once again after a two-year, $3 million restoration project brought new luster to one of the nation’s most important public artworks.

Volunteers who portray 54th Regiment soldiers marched up Beacon Street to the sound of fifes and drums. A wreath was placed before the monument opposite the State House, and “Taps” was played in tribute to the men and Shaw, their white commander, a Boston Brahmin who died in the assault.

“The soldiers of the 54th were as much the great emancipators as Abraham Lincoln,” said Ibram Kendi, director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research. “This monument honors a community.”

Speaker after speaker referred to the monument as almost a living thing, its procession of marching men, accompanied by Shaw on horseback, as an example of courage for a cause that should resonate in the 21st century.

“This monument tells a story like no other monument about that war,” said David Blight, a Yale University professor of American history. “African Americans had to die to be counted as people.”

At a time when many Confederate monuments are being dismantled, Blight said, the memorial to the 54th Regiment remains a conspicuous and revered symbol of bravery and honor.

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“This monument has been here for 125 years to say the Confederacy did not win that war,” Blight said to applause.

The 54th Regiment, which trained at Camp Meigs in Hyde Park, was the vanguard of an estimated 200,000 Black Americans who served as soldiers or sailors in the Civil War. Lieutenant General Gary Brito, the Army’s deputy chief of staff, counted himself and other Black soldiers as their beneficiaries.

“Although the attack failed, the valor of these soldiers paved the way,” said Brito, a Hyannis native. “The color of one’s skin should not be a barrier to patriotic service.”

Members of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment marched up Beacon Street for the rededication.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The ceremony occurred nearly 125 years to the day of the memorial’s original dedication, one year after the US Supreme Court, in Plessy v. Ferguson, ruled that racial segregation in the states — the doctrine of “separate but equal” — did not violate the US Constitution.

Time, weather, and vandalism had taken their toll on the monument over the years, and it had badly deteriorated.

The restoration involved a partnership among the National Park Service, the City of Boston, the Museum of African American History, and Friends of the Public Garden, a nonprofit group that formed a committee in 1981 to save the monument and has been caring for it since.

The meticulous restoration, which began in summer 2020, had been planned as a six-month project, but the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to a long delay. The memorial’s bronze and stone were taken to two conservation studios, and a new foundation was laid at the site.

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The partnership group hopes that the monument, unveiled in its restored form in May 2021, will rekindle conversation about the meaning of justice, equality, and the price of freedom.

“The commanding nature of public monuments is to speak to thousands of people daily,” said Liz Vizza, president of the Friends of the Public Garden. “The promise of this nation is still unfinished,” added Michael Creasey, superintendent of the National Parks of Boston.

Progress toward that promise is reflected in the monument itself. Although Shaw holds the leading position in the sculpture, the faces and determination of the Black soldiers he commands have drawn fascinated interest over the years. They are depicted as real people, ready to die for an idea, and endowed with intense humanity.

Robert Minturn, who is descended from Shaw’s sister, spoke of that shared bond between the 54th’s officers and enlisted men. Minturn and other family members donated Shaw’s sword to the Massachusetts Historical Society, and Minturn’s grandfather attended the original dedication as a 15-year-old, he said.

“It’s not only his courage” that’s important, Minturn said of Shaw. “It’s the courage of all of them, down to the last private.”

Joseph Okafor, 23, a modern-day 54th “private” from Hyde Park, is working to promote the regiment’s legacy as a “living historian.” Although Okafor’s home is close to the former Camp Meigs, where the original 54th drilled, he did not know the regiment’s story until three years ago.

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Now, he said, one of his favorite pastimes is visiting the camp’s site, walking its grounds, and reading the historical placards.

“We need to remember them, these individuals who sacrificed everything,” Okafor said. “We need to keep it alive.”




Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.