At Dachau concentration camp, there is a sculpture of a mass of contorted corpses, impaled on barbed wire, with the words NEVER AGAIN below. Viewing this visceral interpretation of the realities of life in a concentration camp is distressing and disturbing. It forces visitors to remember that today’s pristine, tree lined Dachau, was a murderous hell for 12 years.
This monument and other Holocaust memorials are emotional for Jews. The mind returns to footage and photos of the atrocities commented against them by the Nazi’s and their Eastern European henchmen. It is a sickening to realize that relatives are among the 6,000,000 people who went to their murder in fear and often without a fight [Note: Author is Jewish].
In Washington, DC, there is an important discussion calling for the removal of the 1876 “Freedom’s Memorial” in Capitol Hill’s Lincoln Park. There is also a copy of the statue in Boston’s City Hall which is being removed. The statue features President Lincoln with an outstretched arm over a kneeling freed male slave. His wrist shackles are broken and the base features the inscription EMANCIPATION. The slave was modeled on Archer Alexander, the last man captured under the Fugitive Slave Act.
It is challenging to view a statue of a Black man at the feet of a white man. African-American history is more than enslavement and centuries of injustice. And like the Holocaust, centuries of slavery must never be forgotten.
This statue was an African-American effort to establish a permanent commemoration in their nation’s capitol city. Thousands of freed slaves donated with excitement to create this memorial.
There are over one thousand Civil War related monuments. They honor Union or Confederate Generals, veterans from one or both sides, and battlefields host hundreds of monuments for divisions that fought.
But the Civil War was about ending slavery. When it comes to memorializing the violent, involuntary sacrifice made by enslaved Africans and African-Americans, the United States falls short.
The United States has only four public honors commemorating Emancipation. This statue came 14 years after the 1862 signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. The second is a copy of the DC statue in Boston. The third is a 1934, a stylized panel at the Nebraska State Capitol. The Johnny-come-lately-fourth was renaming of Robert E. Lee Park to Emancipation Park, in Charlottesville, Virginia, which came about after the vile “Unite the Right Rally” in 2017.
Slavery was a vivid nightmare for the donors. If this monument is painful to view, it serves an important purpose. It is an 1876 view of bondage and freedom. The donors experienced an incomprehensible suffering.
People are removed from their comfort zone and distressed by this statue today. The history of slavery is sickening and its discussion uncomfortable. Yet the horror must be comprehended by the public. Slavery must not be sugar coated because it is painful to remember how it was.
With today’s eyes, yes, the monument is degrading. The freed slaves who paid for this knew that degradation. The statue is a contemporary view of slavery, and the profound gratitude to their emancipator. Archer Alexander represented every slave’s brother, son, husband, uncle, father or grandfather. African-Americans in 1876 could relate to this sight; In 2020, maybe it is more difficult.
The base of the statue has the original plaque which reads (in part):
“Freedom’s Memorial in grateful memory of Abraham Lincoln…with funds contributed solely by emancipated citizens of the United States declared free by his proclamation January 1 A.D. 1863. The first contribution of five dollars was made by Charlotte Scott. A freed woman of Virginia being her first earnings in freedom and consecrated by her suggestion and request on the day she heard of President Lincoln’s death to build a monument to his memory.”
In 1876 Lincoln Park was not the chic neighborhood of today. It was a less-than developed part of the District of Columbia. It was an empty space of farmland, and a dumping ground. During the Civil War it was the site of the Union Army’s “Lincoln Hospital.”
The monument was designed and made by whites, and cast in Munich, Germany. Was there a freed slave who could have produced such a work, or was the sculptor considered one of the best of their day?
The same questions can be raised regarding the 2007 selection of the sculptor of the national Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. It was carved in China by a Chinese sculptor.
Frederick Douglass, gave the keynote at the unveiling. His words need mentioning for today’s discussion.
Douglass opened with
“…Wise and thoughtful men of our race, who shall come after us, and study the lesson of our history in the United States; who shall survey the long and dreary spaces over which we have travelled; who shall count the links in the great chain of events by which we have reached our present position, will make a note of this occasion; they will think of it and speak of it with a sense of manly pride and complacency.”
He closed with
“We have done a good work for our race to-day. In doing honor to the memory of our friend and liberator, we have been doing highest honors to ourselves and those who come after us; we have been fastening ourselves to a name and fame imperishable and immortal; we have also been defending ourselves from a blighting scandal. When now it shall be said that the colored man is soulless, that he has no appreciation of benefits or benefactors; when the foul reproach of ingratitude is hurled at us, and it is attempted to scourge us beyond the range of human brotherhood, we may calmly point to the monument we have this day erected to the memory of Abraham Lincoln.”
This monument is the aspiration of freed slaves who joyously gave their money to see their suffering and freedom memorialized forever. And it was made to honor and remember the man they viewed as Moses who brought them out of bondage.