The True Story of the Freed Slave Kneeling at Lincoln’s FeetRoundup
tags: memorials, emancipation, monuments, public historyq
Laurie Maffly-Kipp is the Archer Alexander distinguished professor at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis. Her most recent book is Setting Down the Sacred Past: African American Race Histories, 1780–1920.
We live in a moment of literally falling heroes. The Emancipation Memorial in Washington, D.C.—a statue erected in 1876, funded by money donated by former slaves, and designed and commissioned by whites—features Abraham Lincoln towering over a kneeling and shirtless African American man with broken shackles around his wrists. Considerable ink has been spilled discussing Lincoln’s mixed legacy on race and slavery as well as the speech Frederick Douglass delivered at the memorial’s dedication.
Yet the story of the other figure in the Emancipation Memorial controversy has been largely overlooked, just as it was in his own day. The crouching Black man is modeled on a real person: Archer Alexander, who lived from around 1813 to 1880. I am proud to be the inaugural holder of the Archer Alexander Distinguished Chair in the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis. As far as I know, I am the sole holder of a chaired academic position in the United States named after a fugitive slave other than Frederick Douglass.
Alexander’s fame came after his death, commemorated in the cool curves of bronze that bear his likeness in the Emancipation Memorial, and in his memorialization by his benefactor, William Greenleaf Eliot. As we say the names of George Floyd and Eric Garner and Breonna Taylor, we should say his name, too—and listen to his voice.
What we know about Alexander comes mainly from an 1885 biography by Eliot, an idealistic white New England reformer, Unitarian minister, and founder of Washington University. Eliot wrote in part to explain his own moderate pro-Union stance in St. Louis during the war years, a place in which he was known as the “conservative radical.” Missouri was a simmering stew of North and South, and its residents learned to tread carefully around the “slave question.”
It isn’t clear how the two met. Alexander was fleeing his master, a Mr. Hollman, in neighboring St. Charles County, in the spring of 1863. He had overheard Hollman conspiring to blow up a bridge used by the Union Army, and when Alexander notified authorities, he knew he had to leave. He fled to the city, where greater anonymity afforded cover from slave catchers. Eliot sheltered Alexander under the military protection of the provost-marshal and tried to buy his freedom from Hollman. But the enraged Hollman refused to sell his escaped laborer, claiming that “he didn’t mean to play into the hands of any Yankee Abolitionist.” Instead, he sent Southern sympathizers, including a city policeman, to kidnap the fugitive and jail him. Eliot, drawing on his own social connections and the powers of the Union Army, secured his release, bought him a new set of clothes, and secreted him across the river to Alton, Illinois, until the change in Missouri’s emancipation laws took effect. After the war, Alexander remained employed in the Eliot household for the rest of his life.
There was much more to Alexander’s life besides his relationship with Eliot. He was married to a woman enslaved west of St. Louis, with whom he had 10 children. Though we don’t know much about his personal life, the experiences of other African Americans allow us to piece together the myriad loyalties and affiliations available to Alexander. It is likely he had ties to local Black communities that were emerging in the 1840s, to networks of African American ministers like John Berry Meachum, who opened a school for African American children at the First Baptist Church. When the school grew to over 300 pupils, local authorities moved swiftly to close it down and accused Meachum of stirring up trouble. Instead, five more schools opened in Black churches around the city. Missouri then passed a stringent literacy law in 1847 that forbade any school teaching of Black students and also banned the holding of Black church services without the presence of a white constable or police officer. In response, Meachum created a new school on a barge in the Mississippi River, beyond the reach of state jurisdiction. Students daily commuted by skiff out to the Freedom School.
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