With his legs trembling and his voice shaking, David Smith, a 94-year-old veteran of the International Brigade that fought in the Spanish Civil War, made a frank admission on Thursday morning.
“I never cried the entire time I was in Spain,” said Smith, who was deployed in the war from 1937 to 1939. “But I am crying now.”
The tears flowing from Smith’s eyes were not of anguish, but of joy-the result of witnessing the groundbreaking for a new monument at Justin Herman Plaza, created to honor the American unit — dubbed the Abraham Lincoln Brigade that volunteered to fight against Franco’s fascist forces.
When finished, the monument will be comprised of 45 translucent onyx panels, outlined by steel frames. On each panel there is a side containing an etched image of American fighters, while the other side has literature quotes culled from involved artists of the movement, including Langston Hughes and Ernest Hemingway. The panels are stacked in rows of three, measuring seven feet high, and 45 feet long. The installation site is right behind the Vaillancourt Fountain on Justin Herman Plaza.
Architect Walter Hood, who designed the installation along with his partner Ann Chamberlain, said the monument will provide an apt learning tool for those who know little about the civil war that gripped Spain from 1936-1939. Smith said he is one of just 40 Americans alive today that fought in the conflict. After being motivated in large part by the labor disputes he witnessedin Detroit while a student at the University of Michigan, Smith said he volunteered for the International Brigade at the age of 22.
“There are 800 Americans still buried in Spain from the war,” said Smith. “I cannot tell you how much it means to have their memory honored.”
The proposal for the monument was first approved by the Board of Supervisors in 2000, but planning processes delayed the project eights years before it was finally given the green light. The installation will be completely finished by March 30, at which time a formal reception will be held, according to Luis Cancel, the director of cultural affairs for The City’s Arts Commission.