Shaw 54th: A disruptive work of art

Even so, the famous memorial causes some uneasiness

AT A TIME when Civil War monuments across the country are coming under fire, the National Park Service, the city of Boston, and the Friends of the Public Garden are preparing to spend $2.8 million fixing up the Robert Gould Shaw and 54th Regiment Memorial on Boston Common.

The memorial, facing Beacon Street across from the State House, features Shaw, a white officer on horseback, leading the Union Army’s first regiment of black soldiers off to fight in the Civil War. Completed in 1897, the memorial was the work of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, a white sculptor famous for his monuments to Civil War heroes. His bronze bas-relief captured a historic moment in time made possible by Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

The three funders of the renovation effort, along with the Museum of African American History, see the Shaw 54th memorial as one of the most important works of art to come out of the Civil War and one of the top monuments in the country. They recently hosted a panel discussion at the Tremont Temple Baptist Church to talk about why monuments matter. The discussion, moderated by journalist and author Derrick Z. Jackson, ranged widely, but it showcased how the Shaw 54th memorial is prized as a disruptive work of art that nevertheless creates some uneasiness today.

“From my standpoint, there’s nothing like it in America, really, in terms of the time period, subject matter, and the beauty of it, the resonance it had then and still has now,” said F. Sheffield Hale, president and CEO of the Atlanta History Center. “It’s a totally different kind of monument, but it’s something that speaks to us today because it speaks to the agency of the people involved — that they were liberating themselves. And that’s something we don’t often see in wars.”

DeRay Mckesson, a civil rights activist and author, focused in his remarks mostly on what we as a country choose to remember or celebrate in our monuments – what we choose to put on display and what we choose not to put on display.  “When I think about the memorial and I think about Shaw I’m reminded of the relationship between domination and display,” he said. “What do people who dominate other people put on display?”

In the case of the Shaw 54th, Mckesson said, Saint-Gaudens brings normally invisible people and issues into the public conversation. “I think Shaw begins that conversation. In that way I think it’s a disruptive work,” he said.

Renée Ater, a public art historian who spent a large portion of her career at the University of Maryland, said she had “very complicated feelings” about the Shaw 54th monument. On the one hand, she said, it commemorates a historic event important to the nation’s history. She also believes it is great art.

“I know that’s a serious value judgment I’m making there about good art, but I think it has such staying power because Saint-Gaudens did an astonishing thing with that memorial and that’s the combination of this high relief with a full equestrian monument. That’s an astounding innovation that he does. You can see how artists start to respond to Saint-Gaudens for the next 100 years. So for me the 54th has a lot of resonance because contemporary artists engage it,” she said.

Ater described Ed Hamilton’s African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, DC, completed in 1997, as a direct response to Saint-Gaudens. But there’s a key difference. “In his memorial there is no white officer,” Ater said. “It is black men, standing on the ground, armed. It has a very different kind of power.”

Ater said she sees “relationships of dominance theory” in the Saint-Gaudens monument, perhaps amplified by her conviction that Saint-Gaudens was someone who held racist attitudes about African-Americans.

She noted Saint-Gaudens spent 14 years laboring on the sculpture, asking African-Americans off the street to come into his studio to model. “He did not contact anyone from the 54th as portrait models,” she said. “That’s super complicated. Why not do that because they were around. This would not have been an impossible task on his part.”

A replica of David Ball’s Emancipation Memorial stands in Boston’s Park Square. The original is in Washington, DC. (Photo by Bruce Mohl)

But Ater gives Saint-Gaudens credit for portraying African-Americans in a very different way than his contemporary, David Ball. Ball in 1876 completed the Emancipation Memorial in Washington, which depicts Lincoln freeing an African-American slave who is on one knee, shirtless and shackled at the president’s feet. A copy of the Ball statue stands in Boston’s Park Square on an island between the Four Seasons and the Boston Park Plaza hotels.

Ater said the Shaw 54th memorial represented a great leap forward in how African-Americans were portrayed. “We no longer have the crouching black body, and that’s a huge moment in sculpture history to move from the Ball [approach, with the black man] on the ground to the standing men who are in uniform and walking forward,” Ater said. “So I do think there’s this push-pull between who’s in control and who’s not.”

The Ball statue in Park Square has come under fire repeatedly in the past from people who find it offensive. Jackson asked Ater, Mckesson, and Sheffield what they thought the city should do about it.

“Take it down,” said Ater. “I have very strong feelings about Thomas Ball, about his racism.”

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Mckesson agreed. “Take it down,” he said.

Sheffield declined to say what he believed. “People in Atlanta don’t tell people in Boston what to do,” he said.