BRATTLEBORO — A community effort shined a light on errors made in an initial count of soldiers from Brattleboro who served and died in the Civil War based on race and class when a monument on the Common was first installed.
Peter Elwell, former town manager, said a new plaque unveiled during a ceremony Sunday “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 to avoid military service.”
“The plaque is interpretive because it provides history and context to help people understand how the original omissions happened and how the corrections came to be,” he said. “It is appropriate and intentional that we are here on Juneteenth to celebrate this occasion, as Juneteenth is the annual recognition of when the news of the Union victory and the enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation reached Galveston, Texas, which was the most remote city in the former Confederate states. Some of the soldiers who are receiving corrective recognition on this plaque today were among the soldiers who brought that news to Texas.”
The Select Board approved the new plaque and funding for the project. The inaccuracy of the monument was first brought to the town’s attention in January 2020 by Brattleboro Area Middle School students, who are now sophomores, and led to the creation of a committee.
Abbiati Monuments of Brattleboro created the plaque. Curtiss Reed Jr., executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity and founder of the Vermont African American Heritage Trail, and Mel Motel, co director of the Brattleboro Community Justice Center and restorative justice programs at Youth Services, were credited by Elwell with making “essential contributions to our committee process, to the wording on the plaque and to the organization of our ceremony today.”
Joe Rivers, a social studies teacher at BAMS and leader of the Brattleboro Historical Society, said he appreciates unveiling the plaque nearly exactly 135 years after the original monument was dedicated. He recounted how the American Legion asked the historical society to help it research information on the monument.
“The question was: Was the information on the monument accurate?” he said. “We didn’t know. But as we began to look into it, soon it became clear that the numbers on the monument were an undercount of those soldiers who had been credited to Brattleboro.”
Several sources were used to determine the count on the monument, 31 dead and 385 enlisted, was incorrect. For now, the numbers are believed to be at least 56 and about 450.
“We are not professional historians but we did the best we could,” Rivers said. “We believe our list, while more comprehensive, should be considered incomplete.”
Annabelle Thies, a student involved in the project, said information and facts were gathered to support the plan to acknowledge the error.
“It can be easy to think that they are just that , a number,” said Priya Kitzmiller, a student involved in the project. “Of course, each and every one of them have their own stories and to tell them all would take days, but it would definitely be worth it.”
Kitzmiller told the story of a substitute soldier, who was enslaved, then escaped and married the love of his life, and was shot in the Civil War and “never got the life of freedom with his family he deserved.”
Avery Bennett, a student involved in the project, noted how COVID-19 presented some challenges for the committee.
“We were able to work around them virtually, to continue discussing what to do about the monument,” Bennett said, explaining how the decision to install the additional plaque was made. “And here we are today, two-and-a-half years later, getting to acknowledge the past and celebrating the better future.”
The Vermont African American Heritage Trail currently has 30 sites, Reed said. He expects the number to increase by one or two by next year.
As a Brattleboro resident, Reed said he’s “really, really happy” to have a site in Brattleboro. People have asked him why there haven’t been any in his community.
“Well, thanks to our three students here, I can now say, ‘Yes, we do have something to be proud of,’” he said. “We need to teach history to our kids. Our kids need to be grounded in Vermont history, which is all inclusive of African American history.”
Motel and the three students read the 56 names of people from Brattleboro confirmed to have died as a result of their service in the Civil War. Select Board Chairman Ian Goodnow called the students’ work a “reminder to continue to question the accepted historical narratives that permeate our lives and a reminder that the work to rectify historical and current injustices wrought on our fellow Americans by systems of racism and oppression can begin with a simple question: What can we do about it?”
“On behalf of the town of Brattleboro,” Goodnow said, “I’d like to take a moment to thank the individuals remembered here by this memorial and by this plaque for the services and the sacrifices they made for their country, for their state, and for this community, during the American Civil War.”
Elwell said the plaque will include a QR code or at least a website address where visitors can see documents reviewed during the research phase.
“So it’ll be a continuing process,” he said. “It’ll be a site that grows as we continue to learn.”
Several political candidates were at the ceremony on Sunday and officials statewide called attention to the Juneteenth via statements. It’s America’s newest federal holiday and one of its most important, Gov. Phil Scott said.
“It’s a reminder of how far we have come, and how far we must go,” he said. “We have to remember that our work is far from over, but progress remains possible — and necessary.”
Becca Balint, a Vermont senator from Brattleboro running for U.S. Congress, called Juneteenth a time to “reflect upon the moment in which the last enslaved Americans found out they were free.”
“Today is only our country’s second year recognizing Juneteenth as a federal holiday,” she said. “It took over 155 years for America to celebrate something as massive as the abolition of slavery — which speaks volumes about the work we have ahead of us.”
Balint said the legacy of slavery in the U.S. has been “long, enduring, and damaging.”
“Following the abolition of slavery came Jim Crow, state-sanctioned racism, segregation, and discrimination,” she said. “Today, the inequities Black Americans experience in housing, health care, and education are a direct consequence of the racism that was written into America’s laws and policies in the century following the abolition of slavery.”
Balint said she will be celebrating Juneteenth by reflecting on what she can do to leverage her own privilege and power to challenge racist systems, and uplift the needs and voices of Black and Brown Vermonters, and continue to make progress toward the vision of liberty and justice for all.
Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, who also is running for U.S. Congress, said a century and a half after Juneteenth, “we continue to witness systemic racism, bigotry and hate threatening the life and liberty of Black Americans.”
“Today, I invite Vermonters to join me and communities across the state in a moment of meaningful reflection, recognition and commemoration of this day and the critical work that remains in delivering true freedom, equality and justice,” she said.