One hundred and fifty years ago this week, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw was killed during a desperate assault on South Carolina’s Fort Wagner while leading the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, the first all African-American volunteers corps. Perhaps you know about Shaw from the movie Glory, starring Matthew Broderick, or from Robert Lowell’s famous poem, For the Union Dead, about the equally famous monument on the Boston Common by Augustus Saint-Gaudens (pictured above). It is a story I have known for a longer time myself, at least since the time I attended the Robert Gould Shaw Middle School. My experience there, however, at the tumultuous start of Boston’s busing crisis in the mid-1970s, was about as far as one one could get from the high-minded ideals for which Colonel Shaw gave his life.
It has only been in recent years that I’ve come to realize how much the figure of Shaw surrounded my young life in West Roxbury. As a boy, I rode my bike through the streets that once made up the Shaw family estate, though I wasn’t aware of it at the time. I suppose, if I had been clever, I might have figured it out from the name of Shaw Street. The bulk of the former estate now comprises the grounds of the prestigious Roxbury Latin School. In the same neighborhood are streets named for John Alden and Myles Standish, which might give you some sense of the Shaws’ Puritan pedigree, and why it was Lowell wrote about him being as lean as a compass-needle and seeming to wince at pleasure, and suffocate for privacy.
Yet the Shaw family of the 19th century were not Puritans, but devout Unitarians and dedicated abolitionists. At the bottom of the hill from Shaw’s estate–in a spot now occupied by St. Theresa’s Catholic Church (where I went for years)–stood the home of the well-known Unitarian preacher, Theodore Parker. Not far away, there is a statue of Parker scowling away on Centre Street. In one of his more famous anti-slavery sermons, the preacher intoned, I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice. It was a sentiment Shaw would certainly have shared. If Parker’s phrasing seems familiar, it is because it was famously adapted a century later by Martin Luther King (as NPR reported a few years ago).
In a powerful way, Robert Gould Shaw’s death is connected to Martin Luther King’s dream, and perhaps his death as well; the significance of both figures was very much at stake iwhen I went off to the middle school named after the Union colonel at the age of twelve. The experience of forced busing in the so-called Athens of America was a brutal one, captured well in the PBS miniseries, Eyes on the Prize (Episode 13), as well as in books like J. Anthony Lukas’ Common Ground and Alan Lupo’s more journalistic Liberty’s Chosen Home. Indeed, in one of his opening chapters, Lupo writes about a rally against busing in West Roxbury that some of my neighbors and probably my mother went to. “On this night in late August, 1974, white people who don’t want kids bused are filing into the auditorium of the Robert Gould Shaw School in West Roxbury. It is possible that they don’t see the irony.”
Although I was only a preteen at the time, I know for sure the crowd did not see the irony. The following autumn I would attend the Shaw School, when, after every last measure legal and illegal had been tried to stop them, buses full of black and Latino kids rolled into West Roxbury and an angry white mob met them there. Terrified, I made my way through the crowd on the first day of school, and walked up stairs where cops in riot gear occupied every other landing. I remember not knowing where my homeroom was and stopping to ask somebody who simply said, Keep moving. And so I kept moving, as we all did that year. Things proceeded, as they will, and if they didn’t exactly get much better, at least they seemed to stop being quite so awful. I remember that the teachers, by and large, were kind, and that all my fellow sixth graders, regardless of race, were mostly good kids. But the atmosphere was always tense, and we always seemed to be treading along a minefield. I was glad to leave for Boston Latin the next year.
Here in the South, the racial tension had been felt a full decade earlier, as is well-known. In Franklin County, Tennessee, which I now have the privilege to represent as a School Board member, the movement to desegregate was spearheaded in 1963-64 when a handful of Sewanee families, black and white, brought a civil rights lawsuit to force the matter. The objections of the School Board then–that there was not enough room in the school for more students, and that the black children were unprepared academically–were met with resolve and ingenuity, and people in Sewanee volunteered money for the construction of additional buildings, and donated time tutoring students. The fiftieth anniversary of their successful effort is soon upon us, and the Sewanee Community Council are arranging for a historical marker. This past weekend, the sesquicentennial of Shaw’s death, I spent a part of the morning with my friend Lizzie–herself the great grand-daughter of a Confederate general–looking around Sewanee Elementary School for just the right spot to place this marker, which will be unveiled this coming Martin Luther King Day.
Lowell’s poem about the Shaw memorial was published in 1964, though it had been written a few years earlier, and draws some connection between the issues of the Civil War and the those of the Civil Rights movement.
Shaw’s father wanted no monument
except the ditch,
where his son’s body was thrown
and lost with his ‘niggers.’
when I crouch to my television set,
the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons.
is riding on his bubble,
for the blessed break.
It is not quite accurate, I must admit, to excerpt For the Union Dead as I have, giving the impression that Lowell ended on an optimistic note. Nor is it entirely accurate to smile with satisfaction about the end of segregation at Sewanee Elementary, when there are very few black families who can afford to live in town or make the drive up the mountain on a day-to-day basis. We live at a time when a black man has recently been re-elected President, and yet another has been shot down while innocently walking along the street. Sometimes it is hard to feel, in matters of race, the resolute forward progress of Colonel Shaw as he is depicted in the Saint-Gaudens monument. Things proceed, as they will, and if they don’t exactly get much better, at least they seem to stop being quite so awful.