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Brattleboro Students Want To Honor Black Soldiers Left Off Civil War Monument

A green and black plaque commemorating soldiers.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
VPR File
Brattleboro Area Middle School students researched and found 22 black soldiers from Brattleboro who served in the Civil War. They said nine of them died serving their country.

When the town of Brattleboro put up a Civil War monument more than a hundred years ago, it didn’t include the black soldiers who served in that war. Now some local students want to change that.

The people of Brattleboro put the monument up on the town Common in 1887. It occupies a pretty prominent space in the park, with a bronze statue of a Union soldier standing on a hefty 20-foot-high granite base.

On one side of the monument, there's a bronze plaque that commemorates 385 local residents who enlisted in the Union Army. It reads:

This monument commemorates the loyalty and patriotism of the men of Brattleboro who fought for liberty and the Union in the Great Rebellion of 1861-1865. Enlisted 385. Died In Service 31.

Not among those 385 soldiers: The black citizens of Brattleboro who fought and died in the war.

Priya Kitzmiller was in seventh grade when the Brattleboro Area Middle School social studies class visited the monument last spring.  She told her teacher that it wasn’t cool to forget the black soldiers who served.

"It's important to show that everyone is equal." — Priya Kitzmiller, Brattleboro Area Middle School student

“And right then and there I told him that I wanted to do research on this and be the person that helps it change,” Kitzmiller said in a recent interview.

So when school opened up this fall, Kitzmiller said the students started organizing. They contacted the Brattleboro Historical Society, got them on their side, and are now preparing to go before the selectboard.

“It’s important to show that everyone is equal,” Kitzmiller said. “And that something as unimportant as the color of your skin shouldn’t affect someone as a person, or make it so that they aren’t even a person anymore. Just because of what color they are. So we need to show that everyone is equal no matter what you look like or where you come from.”

Two young people stand in a school hallway.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Brattleboro Area Middle School students Priya Kitzmiller, 14, left, and Annabelle Thies, 13, right, are working with their classmates to convince the town of Brattleboro to recognize black soldiers who served in the Civil War.

Kitzmiller and her classmates are students in Joe Rivers’ class, which he’s been teaching for about 40 years. Rivers is big proponent of place-based learning, and he said you can read about racism, slavery and war in books, or you can walk through the streets, hills and buildings around Windham County to learn the local stories.

“It has more of a long-term impact to have students learn about their own place and then be able to apply those things to the greater world as they’re introduced to them,” Rivers said. “So that’s what I’ve been trying to do for a while.”

Rivers and his students first learned learned about the black Brattleboro soldiers five years ago, during the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. The local VFW asked the class to do a little research, and they tracked down military logs that weren’t available when the monument first went up.

"Black Lives Matter happened, and people started thinking about the past a little bit differently...It irritated them. It wasn't something that would just sit and go away, it was something that festered." — Joe Rivers, Brattleboro Area Middle School teacher

Rivers said over the past five years, the students just kind of accepted the injustice and figured there wasn’t much they could do. But this class, he said, wouldn’t let it go.

“Black Lives Matter happened, and people started thinking about the past a little bit differently,” Rivers said. “So students who might have sat with that information before sat, but it irritated them. It wasn’t something that would just sit and go away, it was something that festered.”

As the students got more interested this year, they dug deeper.

Theylearned about Charles P. Smith, who was born in Brattleboro in 1842 and enlisted when black men were allowed to join the Union Army, and about Isaac Sawyer, an escaped slave from Virginia, who enlisted in April 1863.

A granite monument in a snowy park.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
The Civil War monument was erected on the Brattleboro Common in 1887. Students at Brattleboro Area Middle School want to correct the plaque, which leaves out the black soldiers who fought and died during the war.

“We need to move forward in the way we think," said eighth grade student Annabelle Thies. "We’re all human beings, and we all need to be accounted for.”

Thies is one of the students who counted up the Brattleboro soldiers in books and on websites before comparing them to the number of soldiers on the plaque. She said even though the soldiers and their families are long gone, historians like her have a responsibility to help us all learn from the past.

“If we’re righting wrongs, then we’re paving the way for future generations to also make the right decision,” Thies said.

The students haven’t exactly figured out what might happen if the selectboard agrees to right that wrong, whether the town will replace the plaque on the monument, or maybe put up a new plaque.

They haven’t yet started to raise money, either, but they’ve already received $125 from a Facebook post they put up about their work.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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