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“Fire and Thunder: Massachusetts Blacks in the Civil War,” A Traveling Exhibition on Loan from the Commonwealth Museum, Boston

February 4 - February 26

Dedication of the Shaw Memorial 1897 – Massachusetts Archives, Courtesy of the Commonwealth Museum, Boston


In honor of Black History Month, the Library is delighted to present “Fire and Thunder: Massachusetts Blacks in the Civil War,” a traveling exhibit on loan from the Commonwealth Museum, in the Virginia A. Carten Gallery, from Monday, February 4th, through Tuesday, February 26th. There will be a gallery talk on the exhibit by Stephen Kenney, Director of the Commonwealth Museum, on Sunday, February 24th at 2:00 pm.


Stephen Kenney

Massachusetts recruited three African-American regiments during the Civil War. The 54th is best known because of the film Glory! and the monument to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the Regiment, opposite the Massachusetts State House. This exhibit and lecture includes stories of the 54th as well as the 55th Regiment and 5th Cavalry. Drawing upon the files of Massachusetts Governor John Albion Andrew, at the Massachusetts Archives, it highlights the struggles and triumphs of these pioneering units, including the heroism of Congressional Medal of Honor recipients.


Stephen Kenney has been Director of the Commonwealth Museum, the Massachusetts state museum, since 2002. He has a Ph.D. from Boston University and has been a faculty member or administrator at several area colleges, including service as Interim President at Quincy College.


Study sculptures for the Shaw Memorial by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Courtesy of Augustus Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site

From the Exhibit’s Introduction:

The institution of slavery was a disease deeply embedded in the tissue of the newly formed American republic. It proved beyond the sagacity of the Founding Fathers to cure, and, left undisturbed, it festered, ready to prove fatal to the Union.


In Massachusetts, slavery was abolished not through legislative fiat, but by judicial action in the 1780s. On the national stage, slavery survived, to be destroyed only after a long and bloody civil war. While causes for the Civil War – political, economic, and cultural – were varied, the essence of the fight, especially for Massachusetts, was always about slavery and the defense of human dignity and freedom. The call to this fight went out and was answered. In the press and on the streets, from the pulpit, lecture podium, and eventually the battlefield, blacks in the Commonwealth stepped forward and helped change the course of history.


Writing about people of African descent in the “Atlantic Monthly,” in 1861, Edward Pierce asked the question, “Will they fight for their freedom?” For blacks in Massachusetts, the answer was a resounding “Yes!” Theirs is a story of courage, strength and sacrifice; a story of the quest for a nation free from slavery and a state where, one day, an African-American might speak words of hope and inclusion as Governor of the Commonwealth.


It is a story worth telling.


February 4
February 26
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Carten Gallery
235 Pleasant Street
Marblehead, 01945
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