Vandalism at the Shaw Memorial

Like many of you I was saddened and outraged to hear that the Shaw Memorial here in Boston had been vandalized.  The alleged perpetrator is a 38 yr. old black woman from nearby Quincy.  While she admitted to having an interpretive issue with the memorial, following her arraignment yesterday it was learned that she will undergo a psychiatric evaluation.  I decided to write a little something for my column at the Atlantic, which you can now read, but before doing so I posted some questions about the possible racial implications of this act on my personal Facebook page.

Thanks to Brooks Simpson, Harry Smeltzer, James Percoco, Donald Shaffer, and John Rudy for sharing their thoughts.  The thread went on for some time and it gave me quite a bit to think about.  Brooks is right that the thread is a good example of the “usefulness of social media in advancing historical discussion.”

Click here for the rest of my posts at the Atlantic.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

Purchase your copy today!

12 comments… add one
  • Matt McKeon Aug 8, 2012 @ 4:05

    The NPS interprets the monument as positive and progressive, as of 2011, when I last heard a ranger talk at the memorial

  • Bob Matthews Aug 6, 2012 @ 5:18

    It seems that the constant narrative of this blog is to promote the idea that the Civil War was fought to manumit the slaves of the United States. This is a fallacy. Slavery was obviously however the cultural and geographical reason the partial sides of that conflict were chosen. The invasion of the South, the reason for military clashes, took place for a completely different reason than freeing slaves. Every war that has and will take place on the North American continent is for the same reason: control of the center.

    Wars are fought for different reasons, always geopolitical reasons, from the reasons that political economies and geographic identities(read: Nations) are created.

    If the USa was in the business of ever freeing slaves for that sake alone, then what were we waiting on all these years with slavery lasting in Saudi Arabia( a client state at that) until 1962 and Mauritania until 1982?

    • Kevin Levin Aug 6, 2012 @ 5:38

      It seems that the constant narrative of this blog is to promote the idea that the Civil War was fought to manumit the slaves of the United States.

      Such a statement reflects how little you’ve read of this blog. Can you cite one instance where I’ve made such a claim?

  • Doug didier Aug 3, 2012 @ 2:02

    Skipping over the issue of a “black” person…..

    Wondered what would be the problem with this beautiful memorial.. Well I understand .. Is it a monument to shaw or the 54th? Interesting write up here. Interpretation changing thru time..

    • Kevin Levin Aug 3, 2012 @ 2:11

      I highly recommend the book from which this essay was pulled. Thanks for providing the link.

  • Don Shaffer Aug 2, 2012 @ 16:59

    Dear Kevin: I’m not sure I deserve any credit here, but thanks.

  • Ben Railton Aug 2, 2012 @ 10:27

    Really interesting and important stuff, Kevin. Thanks for posting it here too.

    I remember going to visit the Shaw Memorial with my History and Literature Sophomore Tutorial while an undergrad at Harvard (this would have been the fall of 1995), and of the four other students and two tutors (both advanced grad students), I was the only one arguing that the Memorial was largely a positive representation rather than a racist one. Obviously just one anecdotal example, but I guess it reflects that the interpretations might perhaps have moved more into the anti-Memorial camp in recent decades.


    • Kevin Levin Aug 2, 2012 @ 11:37

      Hi Ben,

      Thanks for the comment. Interesting story. My guess is that some people are relieved to hear that this black woman is likely suffering from some kind of mental disorder. In contrast with other Civil War monuments I suspect that we are less tolerant of competing interpretations of this particular memorial because of its place in our popular memory of the Civil War. I’ve read a number of comments that assume her interpretation, or anyone’s for that matter who happens to find this memorial problematic, must be based on a misunderstanding of the relevant history. I reject this assumption.

    • Lyle Smith Aug 3, 2012 @ 6:36

      What were the Harvard students’ and teachers’ arguments that the memorial is racist?

      • Ben Railton Aug 4, 2012 @ 16:08

        Hi Lyle,

        It’s been a good while, but I guess I would say that most of the arguments had to do with the positioning–Shaw on the horse and everybody else on foot (I countered by noting that, well, officers and enlisted men…), Shaw at the center in every sense, and so on. I think that’s not entirely inaccurate–Shaw is the center and main focus–but also that so many other details, including of course the use of live subjects and the individualized faces of all the 54th soldiers and so on, make a very different case. As Kevin said, it’s an interpretative question, but I still fall 1000% on the side that the Memorial is hugely progressive and impressive.


        • Lyle Smith Aug 4, 2012 @ 21:25

          Thanks for the response Ben.

          I guess there is a presentism argument to be made that the monument portrays racism simply because it is a portrait of racial segregation. The 54th Massachusetts was an all negro/black regiment led by white officers. Racial segregation was de jure and de facto in the Union armies. Therefore recognition of these facts in bas-relief is racist. Or something to this effect.

          I’m with you though, and would argue that the presentism argument is too negative. I really think it is a ridiculous argument. Like you said the monument was hugely progressive at the time. It is the celebration of a locally raised, abolitionist raised black regiment. Frederick Douglass himself had a hand in seeing that a regiment like it was raised. Frederick Douglass himself had a hand in seeing that a regiment like it was raised! They were literally in the vanguard of a civil rights movement fighting against the Confederacy. Fighting against the Confederacy! Oh yeah, “racist”.

          No offense Ben, but WTF Havard.

          • Lyle Smith Aug 4, 2012 @ 21:48


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