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Yes, D.C.’s Emancipation Memorial Advances White Supremacy

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tags: slavery, memorials, emancipation, monuments, public history



Rebekah Bryer is a doctoral candidate in the Interdisciplinary Ph.D. in theatre and drama program at Northwestern University studying performance and public memory in the United States.

Of the major commemorative markers to Lincoln in D.C., the most troubling is the Emancipation Memorial (also known as the Freedmen’s Memorial Monument to Abraham Lincoln), which sits in Lincoln Park, steps away from the U.S. Capitol. The statue features a standing Abraham Lincoln with the Emancipation Proclamation in his hand over a kneeling newly freed African American man. But this monument has been the subject of some controversy since its unveiling in 1876 because of who originated the idea of the monument, who paid for it and who ultimately designed what it would look like.

The monument was paid for almost exclusively by formerly enslaved people, who from 1865 onward raised more than $16,000 for the building of the statue. According to the story told and retold in newspapers at the time, on the day after Lincoln’s assassination, Charlotte Scott, a formerly enslaved black woman living in Marietta, Ohio, gave her first earnings as a free woman to build a monument to Lincoln. From there, more donations grew and then became a national movement when the Western Sanitary Commission, the wartime relief agency, took control and publicized the idea of for a monument from the freedmen in honor of Lincoln. A New Orleans Tribune article from Aug. 10, 1865, proclaimed: “On the spot where Freedom’s ‘best defender fell,’ let his name and the cause for which he died be most highly honored.”

The men and women who raised the money, however, did not choose the design of the monument. It was seemingly never in question, according to art historian Kirk Savage, that the prominent white men of the Western Sanitary Commission would decide what it should look like. They first commissioned a design from Harriet Hosmer, a white, queer female sculptor who planned an elaborate monument that depicted African American history through four figures and Lincoln placed at the center as the martyred hero.

This design, however, proved to be too expensive. After trying to create a large enough fund for an elaborate monument to Lincoln, the Commission chose an already existent design by Thomas Ball, a white man. Ball made tweaks to the kneeling black man’s face to look like Archer Alexander, a formerly enslaved man employed by the head of the Western Sanitary Commission.

On the day of the dedication, Frederick Douglass, the African American civil rights advocate, gave a speech where he spoke of his ambivalence of a statue that solely praised Lincoln, and in an offhand remark said that the statue “showed the Negro on his knee when a more manly attitude would have been indicative of freedom.”

Read entire article at Washington Post

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