Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Confederate Flag and Defending the Shaw (Massachusetts 54th) Memorial

What a difference a century makes.

The great Saint-Gaudens bronze on the Boston Common, depicting the white officer and black soldiers of the Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Infantry Regiment, has become an iconic image of the struggle for freedom and serves as the starting point for the Boston Black Heritage History Trail.

In the wake of the controversy over the flying of the Confederate battle flag in the US south, many of us up here were shocked and concerned to hear that one of these emblems had been attached to the monument.

(Boston Globe)

It turned out, according to the Boston Globe, that the incident was entirely benign. A group of demonstrators had started to burn a Confederate flag, and when dispersed by police, decided to affix the remnants of the banner to Col. Shaw's sword in what they saw as a symbol of victory over the Confederacy and racism. It never occurred to one of the highly educated organizers, described as "a student in a joint program at Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology," that anyone might take the  gesture differently.

As the article points out, the monument has occasionally been vandalized in recent years. As chance would have it, I had just recently acquired a little testimony to hostile sentiment about the 1897 sculpture when it was still relatively new.

It is a postcard from 1906, produced by the Metropolitan News Co. of Boston, which was active from 1905 to 1916. Like many other US cards of the era, it was printed in Germany. Prior to 1907, US postcards did not have divided backs: the blank side was reserved for the address, and senders wrote messages on the side of the card bearing the picture. In this case, the anonymous sender expressed revulsion at the sight of the Shaw Memorial, writing "Abominable!!"--with two exclamation points--below the caption.

The message is clear, yet it is puzzling: if the sender was revolted by the image, why buy it? Was the sender so angry that s/he just could not refrain from sharing the outrage?

Although the monument won plaudits from many contemporaries, including Henry James, clearly, not all felt this way. The card thus serves as a salutary reminder. Just over a century ago, some viewers found the memorial repugnant. Today, at even a hint of desecration, we rush to its defense. That is a useful reminder, as well.

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