Remembering Cambridge’s Black veterans
On May 30, 1897, The Boston Post predicted a Memorial Day like no other. It reported that there were warships in Boston Harbor and an army artillery unit on Boston Common; both would fire their cannon as part of a momentous Memorial Day parade. Five thousand soldiers, including 200 Black Civil War veterans, would parade up Beacon Street for the unveiling of the memorial to the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. The regiment, celebrated in the 1989 film “Glory,” was a “colored” regiment recognized for its heroism at Fort Wagner in South Carolina. This was to be the first memorial to celebrate the heroism of Black soldiers. One hundred seventy-five colored regiments fought in the war; the 54th was commanded by Robert Gould Shaw, the scion of a prominent white Boston family.
The connection with the elite family added to the importance of both the regiment and the memorial.
The 54th Regiment Memorial stood opposite the State House, draped under four immense American flags. Spectators reported that the nearby cannon thundered, and thousands of onlookers of all races cheered. Many dignitaries and some of Boston’s most esteemed citizens stood close to the State House in anticipation of the unveiling.
And then they came: 200 Civil War veterans who had fought with the 54th and 55th Colored Infantries and the 5th Massachusetts Colored Cavalry 30 years before. They were hobbled by time and the wounds they suffered in service to their country, but their shoulders were back and their heads held high.
Among those marching was Cambridge’s John Harvey. His son George and daughter-in-law, Lillian, photographed him as he stood by the newly unveiled memorial. After a brief ceremony at the monument, the parade continued to the Boston Music Hall, now the Orpheum Theater, to the stirring music of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
John Harvey was my second-great-grandfather who, on April 3, 1864, rode into Richmond, Virginia, with the Massachusetts 5th Colored Cavalry; the rebels and their president, Jefferson Davis, fled ahead of them. These Black cavalry troopers rode at the head of the invading forces, flanked by the 29th Connecticut Colored Volunteers and the 9th U.S. Colored Troops, along with two white regiments. According to onlookers, when the Black residents of Richmond saw these proud Black men on horseback chasing the fleeing rebels, their jubilant screams were deafening. Those whites who stayed behind were said to be sickened and devastated by the sight. The march of Black troops into Richmond was a victory comparable to – and perhaps even more influential than – the story of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment.
During the 1950s and ’60s, Cambridge’s Black community would always turn out for our Memorial Day parade and cheer the Black veterans who marched with the Isaac Wilson Taylor Post, named for the first Black Cantabrigian to be killed in World War I. This Black VFW Post on the second floor of the Inman Square Fire Station was an integral part of our community. It held fundraisers, helped the needy, and was a social outlet for all of Cambridge’s Black neighborhoods. Most of these veterans had served in segregated units and experienced virulent bigotry from the U.S. Army and the nation they had sworn to protect. When they returned home to Cambridge, they helped mobilize an effort to increase Black representation in our city’s government.
I once asked my grandfather why he fought in World War I and marched for a country that was so unfair and sometimes so cruel to our people. He told me that the Black soldiers’ dream was that their efforts would one day create a better world for their children.
Cambridge has changed along with the rest of the country. Our once thriving Black neighborhoods are a shell of what they used to be. This Memorial Day, people will observe or not observe this holiday as they see fit. I can never forget or thank enough those Black veterans of Cambridge’s Isaac Wilson Taylor Post for their courageous service.
About The Cambridge Black History Project
The Cambridge Black History Project comprises longtime Cambridge natives who are committed to illuminating the unique history and vital contributions of Cambridge’s Black pioneers. The Project builds on the work of the Cambridge African American Heritage Alliance, the creators of the Cambridge African American Heritage Trail.
Recently two members of the original alliance, Joan Qualls Harris and Takako G. Salvi, have passed on. Their personal contributions to Black history and their dedication to sharing that history with all were invaluable and continue to educate and illuminate.
Part of this Memorial Day story was inspired by Joan Qualls Harris’ book, “Pvt. John Harvey and the Elite Massachusetts 5th Cavalry of the Union Army.”
About History Cambridge
History Cambridge started in 1905 as the Cambridge Historical Society. Today we have a new name, a new look and a whole new mission.
We engage with our city to explore how the past influences the present to shape a better future. We strive to be the most relevant and responsive historical voice in Cambridge. We do that by recognizing that every person in our city knows something about Cambridge’s history, and their knowledge matters. We support people in sharing history with each other – and weaving their knowledge together – by offering them the floor, the mic, the platform. We shed light where historical perspectives are needed. We listen to our community. We live by the ideal that history belongs to everyone.
Our theme for 2021 is “How Does Cambridge Mend?” Make history with us at cambridgehistory.org.
James Spencer, Ph.D., is president of The Cambridge Black History Project