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Ceremony in Sheffield, Mass. unveils headstone for Black Civil War soldier, celebrating his service

More than 100 people, including local school children holding American flags, gathered Wednesday at the Center Cemetery in Sheffield, Massachusetts, to celebrate the service of a Black Civil War soldier, William D. Jones.

Jones was one of dozens of Black men from Berkshire County who served in the 54th regiment. In 1863, he enlisted at age 45, leaving behind his wife, Mary and nine children. At about the same time, his two 19-year-old nephews, Henry Jones and Samuel S. Jones, joined the regiment.

At his graveside, his great-great-grandniece Jocelyn Jones Arnold said many members of her family have served in the military, including 14 men in the 54th regiment.

"I'm so honored to be able to share their stories and speak their names. I mean that's important. They sacrificed so much for this country they deserve, at least, to be known," she said.

Standing alongside Jones Arnold was Brigadier General Paul Minor from the Massachusetts National Guard. He told the crowd he stood on the shoulders of members of her family.

"I wonder if William Jones could have imagined a Black man standing here as a general officer. Probably, maybe he could have conceived such a thing —that that would happen eventually," he said.

Minor, Jones Arnold and her brother, Laurence Jones, unveiled a new headstone for William Jones.

The original stone was damaged last year when a car drove into the cemetery, by accident.

Members of the National Guard played taps and presented the family with an American flag.

As part of the ceremony, the Massachusetts 54th regiment reenactors fired muskets and participated in the presentation of colors—a ceremonial military tradition before the national anthem is played.

"It's just heart warming to know there's people who really care about our past and how we're going forward," said Sandra Alden, a Sheffield resident who attended the ceremony. "Hopefully, we'll be stronger people as we go forward."

The event was part of a larger project organized by the Sheffield Historical Society, celebrating black history in the town. Two years ago the society unveiled a statue of Elizabeth Freeman, a woman who sued for her freedom in 1780 — and won.

Nancy Eve Cohen is a senior reporter focusing on Berkshire County. Earlier in her career she was NPR’s Midwest editor in Washington, D.C., managing editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub and recorded sound for TV networks on global assignments, including the war in Sarajevo and an interview with Fidel Castro.