Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) marked the beginning of Black History Month by reintroducing her bill that would remove the Emancipation Monument from Lincoln Park in the District of Columbia, a federal park in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, citing its problematic depiction of the fight to achieve emancipation.
The statue would be placed in a museum with an explanation of its origin and meaning.
The Emancipation Monument was dedicated on April 14, 1876, the 11th anniversary of President Lincoln’s assassination. The statue originally faced the Capitol, with a direct line of vision to the nation’s most powerful building. But when a statue celebrating African American educator Mary McLeod Bethune was erected in the eastern half of Lincoln Park in 1974, the Emancipation statue was rotated 180 degrees so the two statues would face each other.
It seemed possible that summer. Protesters had recently toppled the statue of Confederate general Albert Pike, pulled down earlier that year in Judiciary Square. In Lafayette Square, there was an attempt to pull down a statue of Andrew Jackson. A few days after the rally, the National Guard was activated and both the Emancipation Monument and the statue of Mary McLeod Bethune were fenced in, remaining enclosed until September of that year.
Eleanor Holmes Norton announced plans for legislation to remove the statue in June 2020, having first introduced the proposal in 2019.
“Although formerly enslaved Americans paid for this statue, the design and sculpting process was done without their input or participation, and it shows,” Norton said in a press release that accompanied the reintroduction this year. “The statue fails to depict how enslaved African Americans pressed for their own emancipation.”
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.”
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 became a focal point in Capitol Hill amid nationwide calls to remove monuments some say symbolize white supremacy.
In 2020, Marcus Goodwin, then a candidate for an at-large seat on DC Council, started a petition seeking the monument’s removal. As of today, it has more than 10,000 signatures.
In the announcement, Norton said that other governments have recognized the need to accommodate the changing attitudes towards historical figures. In this case, Boston removed its replica of the Emancipation Memorial in favor of placing it in a publicly accessible location where it can be better contextualized. “It is time for Congress to place the original statue in a museum, too,” she said.
This article benefits from additional reporting done by Eva Herscowitz.