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Boston restores monument to Black Civil War troops


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: In a time when statues and monuments around the country are being removed for what they represent, the Shaw Memorial in Boston is receiving attention of a different sort. It is being fully restored, with pride that the monument depicting Black soldiers marching off to battle in the Civil War stands the test of time.

Special correspondent Jared Bowen of GBH Boston has our story. It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jared Bowen: For nearly 125 years, the Shaw Memorial has stood across from the Massachusetts State House. It depicts Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the soldiers of the 54th Regiment, one of the first groups of Black troops formed during the Civil War, as they march off to battle.

L'Merchie Frazier: I see men who are determined to have their freedom and the freedom of those who are coming after them and their families. So, for me, it is a walk to triumph.

Jared Bowen: L'Merchie Frazier, director of education for the Museum of African American History, is a consultant on the monument's current restoration. For the moment, bronze has been replaced by photographic brawn.

Do you still make discoveries when you look at the pictures?

L'Merchie Frazier: Oh, absolutely. There's a reveal that happens almost every time, that you find the mastery of the angel and components of the flight that she's taken to guard the men and to protect.

Jared Bowen: Right now, the real thing is taking the winter lying down. Since August, the monument been at Skylight Studios, a wonderland of sculpture.

Here, statuary abounds, from a horse approaching the size of a Trojan one, to the gold eagle normally perched atop Boston's Old State House.

But the piece de resistance, of course, is the monument, which Robert Shure and his team have been conserving for months.

Robert Shure: We have totally stripped all the previous coatings that were on it and refinished it, repatinated it.

Jared Bowen: This is a $3 million effort sponsored by the National Park Service, Friends of Boston's Public Garden, the city of Boston, and the museum of African American history.

At Skylight, conservators take the project piece by piece, shoring up the seams of the monument's some 20 different parts.

Robert Shure: A couple of nuts and bolts missing, but it was in structurally great condition for a piece that was over 100 years old.

Jared Bowen: The monument is the creation of sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who originally intended to depict the colonel astride his horse.

But after Shaw's family of abolitionists asked the artist to also depict the men who elevated Shaw's fame, Saint-Gaudens turned the project into a 14-year endeavor, laboring over details, some which can never even be seen when the memorial is upright.

It's a monument to perfection, says Shure, who is also a sculptor.

Robert Shure: The faces, really, of the infantrymen, the way the sculptor rendered them with such emotion, you could see in their faces fear. You could see the determination. You could see the dedication.

Jared Bowen: In July of 1863, under the cover of darkness, the 54th stormed Fort Wagner in South Carolina. The regiment was defeated with nearly half of the troops killed or wounded, including Shaw.

But that moment, the regiment's ferocious battle for liberty, would be memorialized, in remembrances, testimonials and even in Hollywood in the 1989 film "Glory."

Some 20 years after the battle, Saint-Gaudens began work on the memorial. We first reported on the monument in 2014, when the National Gallery of Art and the Massachusetts Historical Society presented Tell It With Pride, an exhibition that told the story stories behind the monument.

For Saint-Gaudens, an internationally known artist, the sculpture was a labor of love, said curator Anne Bentley.

Do we know why he so obsessive about this?

Anne Bentley: That was just the way he worked. After the monument was unveiled, he wasn't terribly happy with it. He continued to tinker for several years.

Jared Bowen: It is a piece rich in detail, featuring 23 men marching off to battle, guns hoisted, packs tugging and fabric folding.

But they are not the real soldiers. Long after the war's end, Saint-Gaudens hired some 40 models for inspiration.

The exhibition introduced us to many of the regiment's real men, well-represented in photographs they themselves commissioned, said the society's librarian, Peter Drummey.

Peter Drummey: It's wonderful to see people who were proud of their uniforms and the accoutrements of their ranks as noncommissioned officers, their instruments as musicians. Often, they paid to have the photograph hand-colored.

Jared Bowen: All so that they could remember their days. But, today it posterity and a monument that remember them. And during this time of racial reckoning, L'Merchie Frazier says their valor can be even more deeply understood.

L'Merchie Frazier: How would they have reacted to their names being engraved in a monument in a permanent way in American history?

We have a grand opportunity once this is restored to expand the narrative of American history.

Jared Bowen: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jared Bowen in Boston, Massachusetts.

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