As protesters across the District attempt to remove statues that they say commemorate racism, focus has turned to the Emancipation Memorial in Lincoln Park.
The 144-year-old statue depicts President Abraham Lincoln holding a copy of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. Behind him is a whipping post draped with cloth. Shirtless and shackled at Lincoln’s feet is a kneeling emancipated man to whom Lincoln is depicted granting freedom.
Protesters recently toppled a statue of Confederate general Albert Pike in Judiciary Square and attempted to pull down a monument of Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Square. Now, some groups have said they intend to take down the Emancipation Memorial as well.
Around 300 people converged in Lincoln Park Tuesday, June 23. The Freedom Neighborhood, a self-described “youth-led revolution” that organized the protest, called for the statue’s removal and vowed to return Thursday evening to take it down. In a since deleted Instagram post, The Freedom Neighborhood announced plans to return to Lincoln Park Friday, June 26 at 6:00 p.m
On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that the Army had activated around 400 unarmed members of the DC National Guard to “prevent any defacing or destruction” of monuments. Fencing was erected around both the Emancipation Monument and a statue of Mary McLeod Bethune that it faces.
The story of the Emancipation Memorial is long and nuanced. While some cite the statue’s story as cause for preservation, others say history signals the need for removal.
An 144-year History
Calls to memorialize Lincoln mounted after his 1865 assassination. Charlotte Scott, a freed black woman, contributed her first $5 earned in freedom to the proposed memorial. Funded solely by freedpeople, the statue is unique among Lincoln tributes.
Boston University historian Raul Fernandez recounted the complicated history in an essay: Though newly emancipated people raised $17,000 in memory of the 16th president, they had no influence on the statue’s design. The Western Sanitary Commission in St. Louis, an all-white war relief agency that aided the memorial’s fundraising, selected Massachusetts sculptor Thomas Ball.
Ball’s initial design depicted a kneeling freedman donning a liberty cap, the headwear of manumitted slaves of ancient Rome, but the Commission deemed the design too subservient. Around 25,000 people celebrated the final version in an 1876 dedicatory ceremony in Lincoln Park. In a keynote speech, Frederick Douglass expressed gratitude for Lincoln, whose “fidelity to union and liberty” he said was “doubly dear to us.”
But for Lincoln, preserving the Union preceded emancipation, a political balancing act that categorized him as “preeminently the white man’s President,” Douglass said. The statue’s design, Douglass added, “showed the Negro on his knee when a more manly attitude would have been indicative of freedom.”
Arm outstretched and crouched beneath an imposing Lincoln, the freedman’s bronze-cast facial features are modeled after Archer Alexander. Alexander was an emancipated man formerly enslaved in Missouri, a border state excluded from emancipation under Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation.
After accepting the proposal and funds “colored citizens of the United States” organized, Congress appropriated $3,000 for the statue’s pedestal. Today, the Emancipation Memorial sits in Lincoln Park, where it has become a focal point in Capitol Hill amid nationwide calls to remove monuments some say symbolize white supremacy.
Some Protest Statue’s Public Place
Glenn Foster, the founder of The Freedom Neighborhood, said those citing the statue’s history as cause for preservation should consider the design’s modern interpretation. Foster, who wants the statue removed, emphasized Douglass’ criticism and the lack of input from emancipated people who funded it.
In an Instagram post, The Freedom Neighborhood wrote the memorial “embodies the racial undertones of black people being inferior to white people.”
“History is perceived differently every day,” Foster told the Hill Rag. “What does that statue embody? What does that reflect? What does it tell you in the subliminal messages?
The Freedom Neighborhood is collaborating with DC Council At-Large candidate Marcus Goodwin, who created a petition calling for the statue’s removal. Nearly 6,000 people have signed the petition, which urges the NPS to take down a monument that Goodwin says symbolizes “the intended subservience of black people in this country.”
Other politicians have weighed in. Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen wrote in a statement that the monument does not “do justice” in celebrating enslaved people’s role in their own emancipation.
On Tuesday, June 23, the same day as The Freedom Neighborhood held their first rally, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) announced plans to introduce legislation to remove the statue.
In a statement, Norton said she plans to work with the National Park Service, which oversees the land where the statue is located. “Although formerly enslaved Americans paid for this statue to be built in 1876, the design and sculpting process was done without their input, and it shows,” Norton wrote.
But Foster said others have criticized the statue’s messaging in the past, and he’s skeptical of the legislation’s impact.
“Is it going to happen tomorrow?” he said. “Are we going to take it down, or is it going to happen next week, next month, next year? Our freedom is not on their timeline.”
Resident Maurice Cook said the need for the statue’s removal is long overdue.
“I’m disappointed with the liberal accommodationists who are not listening to the majority of black people who want that thing down,” Cook said.
Others Call for Preservation, Education
Some long-time residents oppose removing the statue, including Howard Banks. Banks is a member of the Kingman Park Civic Association who has also taught black history for forty years. Banks said people should call for the removal of tributes to white supremacists — he mentioned Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Ku Klux Klan leader memorialized with a statue in Nashville, Tenn. But Banks is opposed to taking down a statue Frederick Douglass dedicated to Lincoln, a president Banks said “gave his life to end slavery.”
Although he said he favors keeping the statue in place, Banks said any actions to remove it should take the form of community discussions and legislation.
“I believe in putting in legislation to remove it legally, so that the people have input,” Banks said. “I’m hoping that people will have civil discourse.”
John O’Brien, President of the Lincoln Group of the District of Columbia, said the statue has served as a rallying point for civil rights. Some Lincoln Group members consider the statue an important historical landmark that should stay; others are “sympathetic to the concerns of particular representations,” O’Brien said. Abolitionists often employed imagery of enslaved people on both knees to symbolize the anti-slavery movement, so O’Brien said he considers the figure’s emerging half-kneel a “representation of emancipation.”
Fernandez, the Boston University historian, wrote that the statue and the imagery abolitionists employed is “evocative of the paternalistic sentiment that was typical of whites of the era — slaveholders and abolitionists alike — toward blacks, free or enslaved.”
Facing the Emancipation Memorial is a tribute to Mary McLeod Bethune, a black activist who expanded education for black Americans. O’Brien said more statues honoring people of color should be added to the park.
A History of Opposition, Celebration
Criticism — and celebration — of the Emancipation Memorial isn’t new. Henry Morris Murray, who many regarded as one of the first black art historians, noted in 1916 that the emancipated man is depicted with “little if any conception of the dignity and power of his own manhood.”
An exact replica of the Emancipation Memorial stands in Boston’s Lincoln Square. In 1982, Boston City Councilman Bruce Bolling criticized the existence of a statue that many black Bostonians said celebrated a power imbalance.
John Muller, historian and author of “Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia,” said the statue’s significance to long-time Washingtonians differs from that of younger residents.
“I would suggest that people take into consideration the historical context of how it has been in place for almost 150 years or so,” Muller said. “We would view it differently through a modern lens.”
One older resident, Marcia Cole, spoke last weekend in Lincoln Park in defense of the monument. Cole is a member of the Female RE-Enactors of Distinction (FREED), a group that portrays black women of the Civil War era. Cole portrays Scott.
“I say no on behalf of Ms. Charlotte,” Cole said in a video shared with the Hill Rag. “That man is not kneeling on two knees with his head bowed. He’s in the act of getting up. His head is up, not bowed, because he’s looking forward to a future of freedom.”
A Way Forward
On Capitol Hill, people are calling for next steps. Proposals, however, are varied. They include relocating the Emancipation Memorial to a museum, contextualizing it with wayfinding signs, adding other statues to Lincoln Park, removal by protesters and removal by legislation.
Amber Gove, the Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for Single Member District (SMD) 6A04, which includes the park, proposed placing the statue in the National Museum of African American History and Culture and replacing it with a tribute to Frederick Douglass at the 1876 dedicatory ceremony. She’s explained the Emancipation Memorial’s nuanced history to her daughters, but said the representation is ultimately “one of subservience.”
“This is a small park that we all treat as our local park,” Gove said. “This needs to be an image that, our children and everyone’s children as they go by and look at it, really does elevate the story of black lives in a way that the current statue does not.”
Katie Liming, the NPS Public Affairs Specialist for the National Capital Area region, wrote in an email to the Hill Rag that park staff have met with community members regarding the Emancipation Memorial. She added that “the National Park Service does not take positions on potential or pending legislation unless we are called to testify on it before Congress.”
A Community History rally is also planned for Friday, June 26 from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m in Lincoln Park. Participants include members of FREED, Howard University professor and indigenous Washingtonian Carolivia Herron, and Dan Smith, a Washingtonian whose father was born enslaved in 1863. The intent is to contextualize Lincoln and Douglass’ relationship and the history of the Emancipation Memorial.
The history rally is planned for the same day as the Freedom Neighborhood protest. Following a 6:00 p.m. press conference, the group’s organizers said they will host a rally outlining their aims, which Foster defined as “the complete, social, political and economic liberation of black people and marginalized communities.” Removing certain monuments is just one part of the organization’s “mission,” he said.
“If the people want the statue to come down,” he said, “it will come down.”
Eva Herscowitz is a journalism student at Northwestern University currently interning with the Hill Rag. She writes for Northwestern’s student newspaper, The Daily Northwestern. You can reach her at [email protected]