Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Descendants of African-American soldiers honored for efforts to have marble tablets bearing 300 names displayed again in Amherst, Mass.

(Jen Reynolds, Senior Services, town of Amherst)
The Amherst Historical Society this past weekend honored a family that worked for years to have marble tablets containing the names of more than 300 Union soldiers and sailors put back on public display in the Massachusetts town.

The Arthur F. Kinney Conch Shell Award was bestowed to Debora Bridges and Anika Lopes, the daughter and granddaughter of the late Dudley J. Bridges Sr. The three lobbied to have the tablets -- which were put in storage in the mid-1990s -- restored and put on display. 

Bridges died in 2004, but townspeople, officials and descendants of Christopher Thompson of the 5th Massachusetts Colored Cavalry continued the effort to have the heavy, but fragile monuments refurbished and reinstalled in a suitable setting. The artifacts were finally put on display last summer at Bangs Community Center.

Debora Bridges is a tour guide for the plaques and Lopes serves on the Town Council.

Debora Bridges, Anika Lopes and William Harris during Saturday's presentation
The Conch Shell Award is “given to recognize valuable contributions to the preservation and appreciation of Amherst history.” Referred in colonial times as “ye auld kunk,” the device was used in the 1700s to call Amherst residents to town meeting and worship, according to the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

The historical society said it wanted to recognize Dudley Bridges Sr., a World War II veteran, for spending the last years of his life advocating and fundraising for the effort, and Debora Bridges and Lopes -- who are descendants of Christopher Thompson -- for seeing the work to completion. (Dudley Bridges Sr.’s wife, Doris, was a direct descendant of Christopher Thompson)

The elder Bridges wanted the tablets displayed to honor both white and black volunteers.

E.M. Stanton Post 147 of the Grand Army of the Republic, a national Civil War veterans group, donated the tablets to the town in 1893. They were unusual for the time by mentioning 21 Black soldiers, seven of whom fought with the 54th Massachusetts and 14 in the 5th Massachusetts Volunteer Cavalry (Colored). Five died during the war.

(Jen Reynolds, Senior Services, town of Amherts)
About 100 African-Americans lived in the Amherst area when the Civil War broke out. According to family history, Christopher T. Thompson volunteered with his three brothers. He was a 44-year-old farmer when he enlisted in January 1864. His son also signed up.

The 54th Massachusetts, of course, is most known for its valiant attack on Battery Wagner near Charleston, S.C., in July 1863, a scene depicted in the movie “Glory.”

The 5th Massachusetts Cavalry fought in Virginia, including around Richmond and Petersburg, and guarded prisoners in Maryland. It was sent to Clarksville, Texas, east of Dallas, at war’s end.

Among the names on the tablets are the Thompson siblings: Christopher, Henry and John served with the 5th Massachusetts Colored Cavalry while James joined the 54th. Christopher’s son, Charles, also was part of the 5th Cavalry.

The tablets were displayed in Town Hall until the building was renovated in the mid-1990s. They were placed in storage in 1997 and had been away from the public’s eye since. Four list veterans and a fifth tablet lists those who died during the conflict.

Dudley Bridges Sr. (left) developed a plan to move the tablets from a storage area at a nearby gravel pit to an intersection above Amherst College, not far from Town Hall. The proposal was approved in 2001 and the tablets were restored by a Connecticut firm in 2010. The next steps in getting the tablets in the public stalled for a while.

Christine Brestrup, the town’s planning director, told the Picket that the Amherst Historical Commission was instrumental in having the plaques restored and eventually put on display.

The award was bestowed Saturday afternoon via Zoom at the society’s annual meeting. William Harris, also a descendant of Christopher Thompson and CEO of Space Center Houston, spoke with Debora Bridges and Lopes during the presentation.

Lopes said of the tablets: “They represent unmatched courage and sacrifice that led to my sitting here before you all today with my family as free human beings.”

Harris said the family turned to the National Archives for research on the Thompsons, and they gleaned a lot of information through pension requests on file. The veterans needed depositions about their character and service and there are profiles about them.

(Jen Reynolds, Senior Services, town of Amherst)
“That's actually how I found the file of one of our … ancestors, who is part of the Fort Wagner assault and it was his medical file from and many of you know that these they ended up sending many of the African American soldiers ahead, and it was hand to hand combat.

“And it showed where he had been bayoneted in the battle. He survived that battle. We actually (were) holding his actual medical record from the field hospital where they were documenting his wounds.”

The tablets can be seen at the Bangs Community Center in Amherst from 10 a.m.-3:30 p.m on Tuesdays-Thursdays.

Amherst Town Hall was built in the late 1800s (Wikipedia)

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