The power of community conversation

By Liz Vizza & Marita Rivero

On a chilly night last month, the pews of the Tremont Temple Baptist Church downtown were full. On a typical Wednesday, people usually come to the historic church for weekly Bible Study, but crowds flocked to talk instead about public monuments, with a focus on a particular one situated nearby on Boston Common.

Considered by many to be the nation’s greatest piece of public art by its greatest classical sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Regiment Memorial (Shaw 54th) stands proudly across from the Massachusetts State House.

A memorial to the first African-American regiment from the North to fight in the Civil War, it portrays Colonel Shaw and his men marching down Beacon Street on their way to South Carolina to lead the assault on the Confederates’ Fort Wagner.

The Shaw 54th is one of the most important works of art to come out of the Civil War. And yet today, the remarkable story of these brave men in confronting and helping to abolish federally sanctioned slavery continues to be little known.

Over 120 years old, the Memorial is due for significant restoration. Despite regular care, water has intruded into the core and deteriorated the brick foundation underneath the bronze, making it vulnerable to seismic events. The National Park Service, City of Boston, Friends of the Public Garden, and Museum of African American History have come together to ensure that this important piece remains in great condition for years to come.

The Partners also realized that there was an opportunity to use the restoration as a platform for dialogue about race, freedom, and justice. We used the memorial’s restoration as a catalyst to plan a series of programs.

In January, we held “A Community Conversation: The Power of Public Monuments and Why They Matter,” a panel discussion with dynamic voices from art, history, and activism, followed by Q&A with the audience, which was energized by the variety of viewpoints, some conflicting but all respectful, in confronting the layers of meaning, power, and politics embedded in our public monuments.

The Shaw 54th Memorial is not just a monument to one man, it is a monument to the many who joined in common cause to achieve a major civic goal. Many individuals worked long and diligently, black and white, women and men, to abolish slavery. They didn’t agree on everything, but they did agree on a vision of democracy. The majesty of the Shaw 54th should inspire us in our civic life today. We can join with one another to shape the city, the state, and the nation our grandchildren deserve.

This Black History Month, we urge individuals and organizations to seize engagement opportunities, no matter how small, that can lead to knowledge, better understanding, and greater perspective. It was when our organizations simultaneously came together and branched out, encouraging others to come into the fold – and in this particular case, to fill the pews – that we learned the most.

Liz Vizza is the executive director of the Friends of the Public Garden; Marita Rivero is president and CEO of the Museum of African American History.