By Steve Urbon Jul 22, 2015 at 12:19 PM
NEW BEDFORD — The famed African-American Massachusetts 54th Regiment is more fully rooted in the narrative of New Bedford’s storied past, thanks to a mural depicting the regiment’s recruiting days in the Civil War. About 200 people turned out Saturday in the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Plaza downtown to celebrate the latest addition to New Bedford’s cultural and historical offerings. The guest of honor and keynote speaker was former National Park Service Director Robert Stanton, the first African-American to head the agency. Stanton gave a shout-out to Jared Bader of Philadelphia, the young artist who was commissioned to create the mural. “It’s evident that you’re filled with the spirit of the 54th,” Stanton said. “I applaud you.”
The mural occupies the entire side of the building that houses Freestone’s Restaurant on William Street. It has transformed a pale beige blank space with an image that’s a riot of color, partly to compensate for fading on the west-facing wall. The mural, which went up in a little over a week, was not painted on the wall. Rather, it was painted in Bader’s studio on cloth panels and hung much like wallpaper, with seams between the 30 panels that are barely visible.
The $20,000 cost of the project was raised through persistent fund-raising — led by Margaret “MarDee” Xifaras, of the Whaling History Alliance, and the president of the New Bedford Historical Society, Lee Blake. The mural project which took three years from concept to implementation was a collaboration between the New Bedford Historical Society, the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, the University of MA CVPA, the Whaling History Alliance and the New Bedford Art Museum. The speakers
Saturday often struck the same themes: that of the need for constant struggle to reach the state of a “United People of America,” as Stanton put it. He asked his audience to ask themselves, “What am I doing to foster justice, equality and dignity?” “It requires work, diligence and consistency,” he said.
Ron Armstead, director of the Veterans Brain Trust within the Congressional Black Caucus, told of the worry he feels when he sees it take a century or more before black war heroes are honored as such by their government. An example is Sgt. William Carney of the 54th, who wasn’t awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor until 1903 for his 1863 valor in the Civil War’s Battle of Fort Wagner, valiantly fought but unfortunately lost by the 54th as depicted in the movie “Glory.”
U.S. Rep. William Keating, D-Mass., marveled at how Bader managed to incorporate two windows in the middle of the wall into the mural. He used the window as a metaphor for a portal through which one could climb and pursue the goals of gender and racial equality.
Mayor Jon Mitchell remarked that the mural is “eye-popping” with a serious “wow factor.” But he added that there is “still room for contemplation.”
Joshua Boles, chief of interpretation and education for the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, praised the beauty of the mural and observed that tourists are coming across it and hitting their brakes, almost causing accidents because it is so eye-catching. He and others also stressed how important it is that young people appreciate their heritage and seek to teach and learn about it.
Other speakers included master of ceremonies Carl Cruz, City Councilor Dana Ribeiro, Adrian Tio, dean of the UMass Dartmouth Center for Visual and Performing Arts, Lee Blake, president of the New Bedford Historical Society and manager of the project and Noelle Foye, director of the New Bedford Art Museum.
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