BRATTLEBORO — A new plaque at the Civil War Monument on the Common will honor soldiers left out of the original recognition due to racial and classist views of the time.
“This is the culmination of more than two years of work by a committee and years of research prior to that by Joe Rivers of the Brattleboro Historical Society and the Brattleboro Area Middle School students,” Peter Elwell, former town manager, said in a statement read at Tuesday’s Select Board meeting. “The plaque is corrective because it provides recognition for soldiers who were excluded from the original monument, soldiers of color and substitute soldiers who served in place of wealthier residents who were allowed to pay money in order to avoid military service. The plaque is interpretative because it provides history and context to help people understand how the original omissions happened and how the corrections came to be.”
Elwell said a dedication ceremony will be held on the Common at 2 p.m. June 19, also known as Juneteenth, the annual recognition of the day when the news of the Union victory and enforcement of Emancipation Proclamation reached Texas, the most remote of the Confederate states. Some of the soldiers receiving recognition on the plaque were among those who delivered that information to Texas.
“It is past time to recognize the accomplishments of Black Vermonters,” said Curtiss Reed Jr., who served on the committee and is executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, “particularly those that fought in the Civil War, that fought in the Revolutionary War. It’s a very important part of history that all Vermont students and their families should be proud of.”
On Wednesday, the approximately 2-by-3-foot plaque was installed by Abbiati Monuments of Brattleboro.
“They already did some preparation of the site, including pouring a concrete foundation that the granite block will be set on,” Elwell said in an interview. “The piece of granite will be low to the ground so you look over this plaque at the original monument and there’s a pitch to make it easier to read.”
For the project, the town is paying about $15,000. Supply chain issues affected its progress.
“We were biting our nails until just the last few days when the piece of granite arrived and we knew we would be able to go forward in time for Juneteenth,” Elwell said.
For the ceremony, members of the committee who organized the effort will speak about the research process and finding. Elwell said there will be some discussion regarding the importance of the corrective and interpretive aspects of the plaque as well as the improved modern awareness of racial equity and steps to achieve racial and class equity.
Reed will be speaking about the importance of the project and the site’s importance on the African American Heritage Trail. Names on the plaque also will be read.
Elwell retired at the end of the year but the project was important to him to see through.
“I appreciate the town was comfortable with me continuing on as the point person for finishing what we started with this,” he said.
He also expressed gratitude for the patience of sophomores who were in eighth grade when the proposal for the project first came to the town.
“It’s been great,” said Reed, who was very impressed with the research conducted by the students and Rivers. “We had any number of suggestions for them to look at just in terms of where to find information and they were quite tenacious about following every possible lead.”
Brattleboro hasn’t had a dedicated site for African American veterans or prominent figures, Reed said.
“I think it’s by virtue of the fact that we were a mustering town during the Civil War and we had a large contingent of folks from around the state that assembled in Brattleboro for the Civil War,” he said. “I’m particularly interested because the only other site that we have on the trail that is dedicated to Black Civil War veterans is in Woodstock at the River Street Cemetery, so it’s nice to have a variety of stories on the trail.”
Brattleboro’s site is important “because it speaks to the fact that there are some wealthy white residents who essentially paid young Black men to fight in the war for them,” Reed said. Also, it shines a light a bit more on southern Vermont.
Last year, a marker at the Welcome Center in Guilford was dedicated to Lucy Terry Prince and Abijah Price, the first known African American poet in the United States and her husband, who were among the earliest landowners in Vermont. The goal is to update the trail every two years and promote cultural tourism in the state.
“The contributions of Black Americans can be found in every corner so we want to celebrate that,” Reed said. “And because Brattleboro is near and dear to my heart, it’s nice to see something a little more sort of concrete.”
History is being discovered every day, Reed said, encouraging people to reach out about ideas for the trail.