Several hundred people gathered in front of the Massachusetts State House for the rededication ceremony of the Robert Gould Shaw and Massachusetts 54th Regiment Memorial on Wednesday. The 125-year-old memorial, which sits on the edge of Beacon Street with Boston Common as a backdrop, was recently reinstalled after a three-year restoration project.

A popular stop along the Freedom Trail and the Black Heritage Trail, the memorial honors the commander and volunteer soldiers who made up one of the first Black regiments to fight a major battle for the Union in the Civil War. The monument portrays the 54th Regiment marching down Beacon Street as they left Boston on May 28, 1863.

On Wednesday, Black re-enactors marched along that same route during the rededication ceremony, which also featured musical performances and speeches. Those in attendance included Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, Massachusetts Congresswoman Ayana Pressley, history professors and descendants of those who served in the 54th Regiment.

“I'm the third great-granddaughter of Moses Johnson and he was in the 54th Regiment,” said Philecia Harris, a local librarian. “It wasn't until my 30s that I really started learning about this history and realizing that we were part of it, that my own family was a part of it. And so it's great.”

For descendants like Harris, the monument serves as, “a continuation and a reminder of the participation of African Americans in this country in the wars that we've had.”

Harris Family Archives
The family of one of the soldiers who served in the 54th regiment.
Harvey Qualls Harris Family Archive Philecia Harris

Ibram X. Kendi, director and founder of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research, received a minute-long standing ovation for his remarks contextualizing the importance of the Emancipation Proclamation, signed by President Abraham Lincoln, which decreed enslaved people in Confederate states to be free, and allowed the enlistment of Black men to fight for the Union cause.

“The Black soldiers of the 54th were as much the great emancipator as Abraham Lincoln,” said Kendi. “There was not a single person who abolished slavery. It was a communal affair. It was a national affair. It was something we did together.”

“Most of the monuments in this city, across the commonwealth, even throughout the United States, honor a single person. But this monument, the 54th Regiment memorial, honors a community,” he said.

"There was not a single person who abolished slavery. ... It was something we did together."
Ibram X. Kendi

The 54th Regiment gained fame for the bravery of its soldiers in leading a Union assault on a Confederate fortification on Morris Island, South Carolina, on July 18, 1863. While the assault ultimately failed and the 54th suffered massive casualties, the courage shown by the Black soldiers proved their value to the Union cause. The story of the 54th and the assault on Fort Wagner was the subject of the Oscar-winning 1989 film "Glory."

The monument, a bronze relief set in granite, was erected in 1897 after Boston’s Black community worked with Massachusetts state Sen. Joshua B. Smith to raise funds for it. It was created by sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who intended to only depict Colonel Shaw on his horse, until Shaw's abolitionist family convinced the artist to include the men who fought alongside him.

It is considered by some to be one of the great works of public art in the United States.

“This monument is without question ... the greatest public monument. Not only about the Civil War, but likely or possibly the greatest work of public art in the United States,” said David Blight, Sterling Professor of American History at Yale University. “This monument has always been here for 125 years, saying the Confederacy did not win that war.”

Racial Injustice Black Soldiers Monument
A detail of the Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment Memorial features a soldier holding a rifle before re-dedication ceremonies on the Boston Common, Wednesday, June 1, 2022, in Boston.
Steven Senne AP