Civil War Tablets Exhibit Honors Black Soldiers’ Legacy

The Civil War Tablets and Photograph Exhibit, currently displayed in the Bangs Community Center in downtown Amherst, commemorates Black people from the Amherst region who fought for the Union Army.

Civil War Tablets Exhibit Honors Black Soldiers’ Legacy
The Civil War Tablets are displayed in the Bangs Community Center in downtown Amherst. Photo courtesy of author.

During the Civil War, over 300 men from the Amherst region fought for the Union Army. Some of these men fought in the 54th Massachusetts regiment and the 5th Cavalry, Massachusetts’ first all-Black regiments. The Civil War Tablets and Photograph Exhibit seeks to commemorate these men’s legacies and recognize their contributions to Amherst history.

Housed in the basement of the Bangs Community Center in downtown Amherst, the exhibit showcases this history and its connections to the present. The main feature of the exhibit is the Civil War Tablets, massive blocks of solid marble upon which the names of the soldiers are engraved, gifted by the Grand Army of the Republic in 1893 to the town of Amherst after the war. Many of the soldiers’ regiments and positions are also included.

The exhibit, which is managed, curated and guided by Debora Bridges, has been open since the summer of 2021. In an interview, Bridges described her work as a way “to keep her father’s legacy going.”

Her father, Dudley Bridges Sr., was a World War II veteran and resident of Amherst from 1948 until his passing in 2004. In 1999, Bridges Sr. was the person who first started pushing the town to present the tablets to the public.

The tablets, which were originally displayed in the Amherst Town Hall in the 1950s, were in storage at the time. Bridges Sr., however, wanted the tablets prominently displayed, as there was no other monument in the town of Amherst that recognized the Black soldiers who had fought in the Civil War.

While Bridges Sr. was working to get the tablets presented, he learned that during their time in storage, they had become stained by cigarette smoke and the letters were fading. He quickly put together a fundraising campaign to have them refurbished.

When Bridges Sr. sadly and unexpectedly passed in 2004, the movement to display the tablets to the public came to a halt. It did not start up again until 2019, shortly after Bridges and her daughter, Anika Lopes, moved back to Amherst. Lopes, following in her grandfather’s footsteps, put together a seven-person Civil War Tablet committee to once again determine the location of the tablets. (Lopes is also the curator of the Ancestral Bridges Exhibit, currently on display on the second floor of Frost Library.)

While the committee quickly heard back about the tablets’ location, plans to move ahead with their display were stalled by the pandemic.

The project gathered momentum once again in the spring of 2021, and it was the idea of Bridges, along with Mary Beth Ogulewicz, director of the Amherst Senior Center at the time, to use the Community Center basement — the room where the exhibit is today — as a space to showcase the tablets.

The exhibit opened for a planned Juneteenth celebration on June 17, 2021. This was the day that Juneteenth was officially declared a federal holiday, and it commemorated Dudley Bridges Sr., whose birthday was June 17. The exhibit’s opening was held as a town-wide celebration that honored Amherst’s Black soldiers in a new light.

From that day forward, the exhibit has been open to the public three days a week. While there were originally only a few photos to accompany the tablets, Bridges has worked to expand the exhibit, and it has since been transformed. Today, the walls are covered with photos, letters, newspaper clippings, and more.

In addition to the Civil War tablets that are on display, the exhibit also includes other media forms, including photos, letters, and newspaper clippings. Photo courtesy of author.

In describing the work she has done, Bridges said, “I went from five pictures in this room to having the whole room filled, every wall, every space. Every time I get new information that I may not have known, I research it, I make sure that it’s correct.”

Of the vast amount of information that is now in the exhibit, a significant portion is dedicated to the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry and the 54th Massachusetts regiment, which were the first Massachusetts regiments made up of only Black soldiers. Among these soldiers was Christopher Thompson, the three times great grandfather of Bridges, as well as his brother Charles Thompson. Both brothers fought for the 5th Cavalry, which was sent to Galveston, Texas in 1865, for the occasion that would become Juneteenth, when enslaved people in Texas learned of their freedom.

Bridges narrated this incredible scene, saying, “[The soldiers] went to Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865. And they went to Texas to let [the slave owners] know, of course, you can no longer have slaves, and by the way, you lost the war.”

Bridges continued, “And all I can think of is, you have these Black troops, with their uniforms and their rifles. And they’re on their horses riding into these plantations and the slaves looking, and saying, ‘They look like us’ and then letting them know they’re free. ‘You don’t have to stay here.’”

Information about Charles and Christopher Thompson, and other relatives of Bridges and Lopes, can be found in the Ancestral Bridges exhibit as well. Importantly, Charles Thompson also spent several years working for Amherst College as the head janitorial supervisor.

Bridges added that most people from Amherst can find a relative here, referencing her 50th high school reunion last year, when she brought her former classmates to the exhibit.

“I had a 50th high school reunion last year. And I brought them down here and it’s like, ‘You'll see your family's names.’ And everybody was like, ‘That's mine. That's my great great grandfather.’”

However, Bridges also emphasized that the exhibit and the history it represents go far beyond Amherst.

“It’s not just local Amherst history,” Bridges said. “It’s national history that needs to be passed on.”

Bridges focused attention on this point, making clear that the exhibit needs to be in a place where it can get more attention from the public. At the moment, there are plans for the exhibit to eventually be moved to Jones Library when its renovation is complete.

For now, Bridges said that she is just trying to get as many people to visit the exhibit as possible, especially students.

“I'm trying to get elementary school kids, you know, middle school kids, high school kids,” she said. “The more young people that come here and know about this, the more likely that it will be passed on. I just want to make sure this legacy keeps going.”