Community to consider correcting memorial

The Civil War monument on the Common in Brattleboro.

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BRATTLEBORO — A proposal aims to honor the veterans who were not counted on the Civil War Monument with a new interpretive plaque at the site. 

"This Soldiers’ Monument was erected to honor the men of Brattleboro who fought during the Civil War," the plaque is proposed in part to state. "Research by Brattleboro students and the Brattleboro Historical Society has made clear that the information on the plaques is incomplete, misleading, racist, and classist." 

A committee created to look into the issue wants the plaque to say that the south-facing plaque states that 385 men enlisted and 31 died in service but records compiled by the U.S. government and other organizations indicate that about 450 men served for Brattleboro and at least 56 died as a result of this service.

The committee suggests the plaque say that the north-facing plaque listing the major battles fought by local soldiers doesn't include the military campaigns of the 22 African American soldiers from Brattleboro, eight of whom died as a result of their service. Those campaigns included Chaffin's Farm, Appomattox, and Texas-Louisiana.

The committee recommends the plaque say the west-facing plaque depicting a Confederate soldier shaking hands with a Union soldier "reinforces a stereotype that credits 'civilized' White men for benevolently 'giving' freedom to a grateful and subservient enslaved individual, obscuring the centuries-long struggle by Africans to oppose and fight slavery in the Americas."

"This monument and the statements at the 1887 dedication ceremony also failed to recognize the Civil War service and sacrifice of African Americans, working class laborers, and those who served as substitutes for privileged White men who chose not to serve," the plaque is proposed to state. 

The project will come up at the Select Board meeting Tuesday. The committee and town staff recommend the Select Board approve the proposed wording for an interpretive plaque at the town's Civil War Monument and authorize spending as much as $10,000 on the project. 

Three Brattleboro Area Middle School students who are now sophomores at Brattleboro Union High School — Avery Bennett, Priya Kitzmiller, and Annabelle Thies — and their teacher Joe Rivers approached Town Manger Peter Elwell in January 2020 to share their information about the monument. 

"Their research, much of it using primary source documents and confirmed through cross checking in multiple reliable secondary sources, showed that the numbers of soldiers from Brattleboro who served and died in the Civil War was underreported on the monument," Elwell wrote in a memo. "More granular review of the data used to create the monument in 1887 and of the more complete data compiled during the students’ recent research showed that the unrecognized soldiers were African Americans, working class laborers, and those who served as substitutes for privileged White men who chose not to serve." 

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Elwell said the students asked him what the town could do in terms of correction. In July 2020, he assembled a committee to review the research and determine next steps. 

Bennett, Kitzmiller, Thies and Rivers are joined on the committee by Curtiss Reed, executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity; Mel Motel, executive director of Brattleboro Community Justice Center, which is now part of Youth Services; John Hagen, who was formerly president of the American Legion. Elwell said the committee met for 14 months, reviewing documents and considering ways to correct the record. 

"We sought additional perspective from BIPOC residents and from veterans," Elwell wrote. "After deciding that we would recommend a corrective and interpretive additional plaque at the monument site on The Common, we collaborated on the wording of the new plaque."

In September, the Windham County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was asked to weigh in. Elwell said in November, NAACP Chapter President Steffen Gillom confirmed his group is in full support of the new plaque.

"We believe that it is high time that all who served be recognized," Gillom said, according to the memo. 

Elwell said Brattleboro Recreation and Parks Director Carol Lolatte, who is responsible for the maintenance of The Common including the Civil War Monument, was consulted about the details. The new plaque is estimated by Abbiati Monuments to cost $9,500, according to the memo. 

In a document with the proposed wording for the plaque, the committee suggests holding an official dedication of the new interpretive plaque June 19 "to highlight the direct connection between the African American soldiers from Brattleboro who served in the Texas-Louisiana campaign and that campaign’s achievement of bringing the news of the end of the war to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation on what we now celebrate as Juneteenth."

"I'm very much in favor of this proposal, as it acknowledges both the racism and classism of this important monument to our history, while not altering the original art, which in itself is a good lesson in not repeating the mistakes of our town's past leaders," Select Board member Tim Wessel said Sunday via Facebook. 

The board also will take up Tuesday suggestions from the Representative Town Meeting Steering Committee, a housing action plan, a scoping study to improve bicycling on Route 9, safety improvements recommended for the intersection of Canal Street and South Main Street, and a proposal to add a crosswalk and rectangular rapid flashing beacon between Retreat Farm and Retreat Meadows on Route 30.