Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Garden of History: The Still Homeless Memorial for Sacco and Vanzetti


            In 1928 Gutzon Borglum took time out from turning the face of a South Dakota mountain into the Mount Rushmore National Memorial, bearing the faces of great American leaders, to create a 7-foot long low-relief sculpture depicting two famous faces of contemporary America, Sacco and Vanzetti, along with a quotation from Vanzetti's last words. The famous sculptor intended to give this work to the City of Boston for public display.

            The site of the two Italian immigrants' execution just the year before (Aug. 23, 1927), Boston was in no mood to accept such a gift in 1928. Attempts were then made to present the sculpture to city officials in 1937, 1947 and 1957 to Boston mayors or a Massachusetts governor without success. 

               On the 20th anniversary of the executions (1947), some famous names -- try Eleanor Roosevelt and Albert Einstein -- wrote a public statement demanding that the state publicly display the Borglum sculpture. But no one tells the state of Massachusetts that 'you were wrong in 1927 and you are still wrong today.' The demand was ignored.

            In 1977 Governor Michael Dukakis issued a proclamation that cleared the names of Sacco and Vanzetti from guilt on the ground that they had not received a fair trial.

            In 1997, 70 years after the executions, the gift of the sculpture was officially accepted by Mayor Thomas Menino and Governor Paul Cellucci. 
            The sculpture depicts the two men's faces in profile along with a quotation from Vanzetti's last letter. Although Borglum had cast the work in bronze, the bronze had disappeared, and only a plaster cast of the work remained. Plans were made then to cast the sculpture in bronze and display it in a suitable public space.

             Somehow, nothing happened, and Borglum's sculpture remains behind doors in a back room of the Boston Public Library.

            In 2014, the Boston Globe's Richard Kreitner wrote a story pointing out that despite occasional gestures "the Boston area has done its best to forget the whole affair." His story points out that the execution site, the old Charlestown state prison, is now the Bunker Hill Community College. The old Norfolk County Jail in Dedham, where both men were imprisoned at times, has been converted into luxury condominiums.

            And, most bizarrely of all, Borglum's sculpted memorial of two victims of societal prejudice has been stashed "on the third floor of the Boston Public Library, down a series of corridors and through several rooms, behind a door that, one out-of-town visitor was recently saddened and surprised to find, is locked on weekends."
            A Boston organization called the Sacco-Vanzetti Memorial Committee (http://saccoandvanzetti.org/) continues to push for "daylighting" the sculpture in some public outdoor setting. A committee member, Robert D'Attilio, said that a recent offer of a home for the sculpture came from the town of Dedham.
            Boston, where the Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee headquartered a seven-year effort to raise funds for the defense in the lengthy case, and where an estimated 200,000 people took part in a funeral march for the executed men, still seems to me to be right and proper home for a public memorial for Sacco and Vanzetti.