A Monument to Our Shared Purpose

tags: African American history, memorials, emancipation, public history, freedmen

Mr. Guelzo is the senior research scholar in the Council of the Humanities at Princeton University and Mr. Hankins is a professor of history at Harvard University.


The finished sculpture was unveiled at a citywide celebration on the 11th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination. In attendance were President Ulysses S. Grant, the cabinet and the Supreme Court. The festivities themselves were the work of Washington’s black community. The principal orator was the most famous African-American in the nation, Frederick Douglass.

The sculptural group, even as redesigned, still rubbed some the wrong way. In 1892, a Boston newspaper cruelly mocked the statue as an image of a shoeshine boy, “blackening Lincoln’s boots,” and in 1916, Freeman H.M. Murray, an African-American journalist, opined that the kneeling figure showed “little if any conception of the dignity and power of his own manhood.” 

More recent critics have inverted the entire purpose of the statue, seeing it as a monument to the continued subordination of African-Americans to white supremacy. The art historian Kirk Savage in a 2018 book wrote that “Ball’s emancipated man is the very archetype of slavery: he is stripped, literally and figuratively, bereft of personal agency, social position, and accouterments of culture. …the monument is not really about emancipation but about its opposite—domination.”

But the most common denunciation of the memorial usually comes in the words Douglass used to describe Lincoln in his dedicatory oration. Reconstruction had soured Douglass on Lincoln, whom in 1865 he had described as “emphatically the black man’s president.” Now Douglass announced that “in his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man” and was “pre-eminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men.” If that did not seem to make the Freedmen’s Memorial “a monument to white supremacy,” it would be hard to imagine what else would.

But Eleanor Holmes Norton, George Foster and the rest are wrong. The Ball statue is a monument to African-American agency; but, even more, it is a monument to the mutual agency of blacks and whites together in the struggle to abolish the evil of “property in man,” to use a phrase used by both Lincoln and Douglass. They would do well to remember what Douglass went on to say about Lincoln that day in 1876: “No man who knew Abraham Lincoln could hate him,” and so “he is doubly dear to us, and will be precious forever.” Their criticism and that of others suggests that there can never be mutuality of purpose, that all human relationships must be calibrated in terms of power and suspicion. Tear the statue down, and we have testified, in art and in society, that we now believe that we live only as creatures of blood and impulse, slaves to the past, not free men and women.

Read entire article at Wall Street Journal

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