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Black history is American history: Hundreds attend ceremony to dedicate headstone to Sheffield Civil War Veteran William D. Jones

"The 54th was a regiment known for its courage and determination during the Civil War," William D. Jones' great-great-grandniece Jocelyn Jones Arnold said in her speech during the May 1 ceremony. "The service and sacrifice of these American heroes will never be forgotten.”

Sheffield — Hundreds attended a ceremony dedicating a new headstone for Civil War Veteran William D. Jones at the Center Cemetary on Wednesday, May 1. Jones served in the Civil War in the Massachusetts 54th Infantry Company B.

According to the Historical Society, Jones was a lifelong Sheffield resident who enlisted in the Civil War at 45 years old. He enlisted alongside two of his nephews: 19-year-old Pittsfield natives Henry Jones and Samuel Jones. His enlistment lasted for three years.

William Jones and his nephew Samuel Jones engaged in a battle with Confederate soldiers at Morris Island in Beaufort, S.C. in January 1864. Both William Jones and Samuel Jones were injured, with the latter losing an eye.

William Jones died on July 19, 1902, at the age of 84, and his and his nephews’ can be found on the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C. Years ago, however, a car accident at the Center Cemetery took out William Jones’s gravestone.

The May 1 dedication ceremony was a way to celebrate American, Black, and military history. Members of the United States Army, National Guard, local residents, and eighth grade students from Undermountain Elementary School all took part in the event.

Students from Undermountain Elementary School leading the Pledge of Allegiance. Photo by Shaw Israel Izikson.
Some of the many attendees at the May 1 ceremony. Photo by Shaw Israel Izikson.
Jocelyn Jones Arnold, William D. Jones’ great-great-grandniece, with State Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli (D – Lenox). Photo by Shaw Israel Izikson.

William D. Jones’ great-great-grandniece Jocelyn Jones Arnold and his great-great-grandnephew Laurence Jones both attended the May 1 ceremony. Arnold began her speech by reading the Sheffield Resolve from 1773:

Resolved that all mankind in a state of nature are equal, free and independent of each other and have a right to the undisturbed enjoyment of their lives, their liberty and property.

Arnold continued, “I’m sure that William’s decision to enlist was fueled by an unwavering commitment to contribute to our collective American heritage and to claim the rightful American Dream that was promised to him. Beyond that, his contributions to a unified nation where all mankind are equal and free, is a testament to his profound love for humanity, and his belief in the unevenly, unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all Americans, regardless of race, religion, or social status.”

Arnold said that the Jones family has a very extensive history of serving their country. As an example, she said that William Jones’s grandfathers, Jethro Jones and Prince William Starkweather, were free Black veterans of the Revolutionary War, with Jethro Jones serving in the Continental Army from 1777 to 1783. “Throughout our nation’s history, African Americans have tirelessly fought for the opportunity to prove their worth and to contribute to society,” Arnold said. “Yet, even as we show up, fight, and demonstrate our commitment to collective freedom, we continue to face exclusion and marginalization as if our humanity and dignity hold no value. We must remember that every individual, regardless of their background, and our beliefs, is deserving of the basic human rights of freedom, love, community, and a sense of belonging. The 54th was a regiment known for its courage and determination during the Civil War. The service and sacrifice of these American heroes will never be forgotten.”

Arnold said that she is grateful for her great-great-uncle and the other members of the 54th Infantry “for their fight for freedom and equality for all Americans.” “In joining the 54th, William became part of one of the nation’s most formidable and historically significant military units,” Arnold said. “The 54th is important to our collective American history primarily for their courage and sacrifice.” The 54th Infantry was one of the first official African American units in the Union Army during the Civil War.

“The soldiers displayed remarkable bravery and determination, particularly during the brutal assault on Fort Wagner, which made them famous across the country,” Arnold said. “Their actions proved that Black soldiers could be just as effective as white soldiers. They’re also known for their pioneering role in racial justice. The 54th campaign for equal pay, led by Samuel Harrison, signaled the move towards racial justice in the military. Initially, Black soldiers were paid nearly half of the pay of their white counterparts: $7 a month versus $13 for white soldiers. However, Samuel Harrison and 54th Infantry’s protests helped change that policy and set a precedent for equal treatment of all members of the U.S. military. The infantry has become a symbol of African American military service and a testament to the resilience of African Americans in the face of adversity. By honoring this regiment, we acknowledge the importance of African American contributions to United States history and encourage present and future generations to strive for equality, justice, and freedom.”

Brigadier General Paul L. Minor of the Massachusetts National Guard speaking at the May 1 ceremony. Photo by Shaw Israel Izikson.

“As a senior military leader, I stand on the shoulders of not only William Jones but the Jones family and their decades of service, beginning in revolutionary times and well into the 20th century,” Brigadier General Paul L. Minor of the Massachusetts National Guard said. “They have paved the way, and their story is part of the American story. When I say standing on the shoulders, I wonder if William Jones could have imagined a Black man standing here as a general officer, probably, maybe you’d have conceived such a thing.”

Minor called the Jones family’s history of service “amazing and inspirational.” “There’s a narrative out there that our country is an evil country, conceived in iniquity, and that we’re the source of everything bad, not only here in this nation, but in the world,” Minor said. “I can understand if you decide it would be the view, but not for the Jones family. For them, that was not the case. We were able to benefit from their aspirations.”

State Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli speaking at the May 1 ceremony. Photo by Shaw Israel Izikson.

“I have always said that Black history is American history,” State Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli (D – Lenox) said. “But sadly, Black history is not the American history that I learned while I was growing up in the Berkshires, and the same goes for so many people in the Berkshires as well.”

Rep. Pignatelli then addressed the students from Undermountain Elementary School. “It’s cool that these students are here today,” Pignatelli said. “We need you because, for the next generation, it’s our obligation to bestow the stories and teach the stories for the next generation. Long after we’re all gone, it’s up to you to keep these traditions alive.”

State Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, Jocelyn Jones Arnold, and Laurence Jones after the headstone’s unveiling. Photo by Shaw Israel Izikson.
Members of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment at the May 1 ceremony. Photo by Shaw Israel Izikson.
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