Like countless other towns and cities across America, Brattleboro is in the midst of an awakening to the racist currents of our past, some of which have manifested into ignoring or downplaying the contributions of people of color throughout American history.
Case in point is the Civil War Soldiers’ Monument on the Brattleboro Common. It was erected in 1887 to honor all those from Brattleboro who fought and died in the Civil War, but the list is incomplete. African American soldiers, laborers and people who were paid to serve in the war as substitutes for the wealthier were overlooked because of racism and classism of the time. What’s more, one of the plaques fixed to the monument depicts an image of a white savior trope, with two white soldiers shaking hands while a Black person kneels between them, reaching out for a copy of the emancipation papers clutched in the white man’s hand.
We realize today just how offensive that image is, along with the omission of those who served and died in the war. The monument currently states that 385 men from Brattleboro served, and 31 died. Thanks to some eye-opening research from local students and their teacher, those numbers have been revised to about 450 who served, and at least 56 who died as a result of this service.
In other towns and cities, people are tearing down such monuments to make a statement about eliminating these examples of whitewashed history. Brattleboro chose a different approach, one that we hope provides an ongoing teachable moment to reconcile with our country’s racist past and recognize that this in itself is a historic moment.
On Tuesday, the Brattleboro Select Board unanimously voted to support a $10,000 project to install an interpretive plaque next to the existing monument to set the record straight, give proper credit where due and educate people about racist stereotypes.
“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.”
The new plaque will also note that the image of 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.”
What’s noteworthy about this project is that it was truly a community effort. Several years ago, the local American Legion asked the Brattleboro Historical Society to look into the accuracy of the original plaques and students from Brattleboro Area Middle School were enlisted to help with the research. They brought their findings to the town manager, who immediately put together a diverse group for the Civil War Monument Committee that included representatives from the middle school, as well as the American Legion, the Brattleboro Community Justice Center and the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity.
To move forward, we must continue working together to correct — not hide — our mistakes from the past.