Emancipation Statue

Freedman's Memorial at Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C.
Freedman's Memorial at Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C.


A Black Woman and $5

Charlotte Scott began the journey that led to this monument. After President Abraham Lincoln's murder, Scott gave $5 towards what she hoped would be a memorial. Recently emancipated from enslavement, this was her first money earned as a free Black woman.

From here, $20,000 was given by Black Americans, many of who shared Ms. Scott's status as recently freed persons.The St. Louis-based Western Sanitary Commission held the money. These white abolitionists searched for a design. There is no evidence anyone outside this group had a say in the design. Black folks paid for it; white folks chose it.

Harriet Hosmer proposed a multi-level memorial showing Lincoln alongside several Black Americans. This ambitious design was compelling, but too expensive. A simpler, more affordable design was needed. William Greenleaf Eliot was one of the monument committee. Years before he saw small sculpture done by Thomas Ball, a white American sculptor in Munich.

When Ball heard of Lincoln's death in 1865, he wrote, "I could not free my mind from the horror of it." At the same time Charlotte Scott donated her $5, Thomas Ball began sculpting a memorial. They were unaware of each other. Later, when Eliot saw the completed memorial of Lincoln and an enslaved man and asked Ball if they could use it. "Of course I accepted their offer, for you must remember that every cent of this money was contributed by the freed men and women," Ball reflected.
A portrait of formerly enslaved Archer Alexander; Model for the Emancipation Statue
Portrait of Archer Alexander, the model for the Emancipation Statue


A Black Man as the Model

Some changes occurred. The enslaved individual's face was now modeled off Archer Alexander. Alexander is often called the last person taken under the Fugitive Slave Act. A hat came off, and a pile of books became a pedestal. In 1875, the statue traveled to Washington to be placed in Lincoln Park.

The statue, called “The Emancipation Group” or “Freedman’s Memorial,” was dedicated April 14, 1876. On the 11th anniversary of Lincoln’s death, nearly every African American organization in the city joined in a large parade. As it snaked its way through the city, a crowd buzzed in anticipation. Before the crowd stood the statue covered in flags and bunting. A stage next to the monument eagerly awaited them. President Ulysses Grant arrived. The formerly enslaved Blanche Kelso Bruce was with him. Bruce was now a Mississippi Senator. As the parade got closer, they saw “twenty-seven mounted police, followed by three companies of black militia troops, headed by the Philharmonic Band of Georgetown. Numerous other cornet bands, marching drum corps, youth clubs in colorful uniforms, and fraternal orders from both Washington and Baltimore filled in the long line with pride and pomp. The Knights of St. Augustine carried a large banner with a painting of the martyred Lincoln.” With them were Master of Ceremonies, John Mercer Langston, and featured orator Frederick Douglass.

The Marine Band struck up “Hail, Columbia” as nearly 25,000 spectators angled for a view. Readings and music occurred. The head of the Western Sanitary Commission gave the history of the monument. After this address, John Mercer Langston invited President Grant to reveal the monument. He grabbed the cord in his hands, and “as Grant stood still for a long moment, the entire crowd hushed in rapt silence.” As the stars and stripes slid off the bronze memorial, thousands roared in applause and shouts. Cannons nearby thundered into the heavens. Lincoln's face again looked upon the nation's capital. The Marine Band erupted in "Hail to the Chief," followed by letters and poetry.
Portrait of Frederick Douglass
Portrait of Frederick Douglass

Public domain

Frederick Douglass Addressed Attendees of the Memorial Dedication

Then stepped forward Douglass. Above him was a standing Lincoln, left hand stretched over the head of Archer Alexander. Lincoln’s right hand gripped the Emancipation Proclamation. The Proclamation was on a plinth – a heavy support structure common for works of art. On it are patriotic symbols: George Washington, a shield with stars and stripes, and a bundle of reeds strapped together. Behind is a small whipping post, draped in cloth. On the back of the post was a pillory and ring where the chains, now broken, once secured. A vine creeps through these rings, showing chains as a thing of the past.

In front of the towering Lincoln is the bronze form of Archer Alexander. His right knee is off the ground, his face turned upward toward Lincoln and the sky. Chains around his wrists are broken; his right fist a demonstration of strength – clenched. He is muscular, though shirtless. With his knee off the ground: is he kneeling, or preparing to stand? Is Alexander naked and vulnerable, or muscular and strong?

With the unclear symbol above him, Douglass's voice roared. In the crowd sat President Grant and many of his Cabinet. Joining them were Justices from the Supreme Court and members of both houses of Congress. One historian observed, “No African American speaker had ever faced this kind of captive audience, composed of all the leadership of the federal government in one place; and no such speaker would ever again until Barack Obama was inaugurated president in January 2009.”

Douglass’s words highlighted the complex legacy of Lincoln. This statue, he asserted, was one of the firsts. It was the first of Lincoln. The first in American history to show a Black man. The first paid for by Black Americans. The first in which Black Americans were welcome to participate and celebrate. “We, the colored people, newly emancipated and rejoicing in our blood-bought freedom...have now and here unveiled, set apart, and dedicated a monument of enduring granite and bronze…[to] Abraham Lincoln, the first martyr President of the United States.”

“Truth compels me to admit,” he added, “in his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man.” Calling him the white man’s President, he spoke to his white listeners. “You and yours were the objects of his deepest affection and his most earnest solicitude. You are the children of Abraham Lincoln. We are at best only his step-children; children by adoption, children by forces of circumstances and necessity.” He reminded the audience that was no excuse to not value this monument. “We entreat you to despise not the humble offering we this day unveil to view.” Douglass spoke to the feelings in his own day. To some, Lincoln was “tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent.” To others, Douglass added, he was “swift, zealous, radical, and determined.”

Finishing up, Douglass announced: “We have done a good work for our race today. 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.”

Freedman's Memorial and Bethune Memorial at Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C.
Freedman's Memorial and Bethune Memorial at Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C.


Frederick Douglass' Further Reflections on the Emancipation Statue

As sunset fell upon this new statue for the first time, the immense crowd went about their days. The statue remained. Future generations still ask: Just what exactly shown here? Even Douglass was not sure. In his speech, he both praised and criticized Lincoln. Days later, Douglass continued thinking about this new statue. How do you truly honor and remember all who had a share in emancipation?

Five days later, in an April 19, 1876 letter to the National Republican, Douglass revealed more of his thoughts:

“Admirable as is the monument by Mr. Ball in Lincoln park, it does not, as it seems to me, tell the whole truth, and perhaps no one monument could be made to tell the whole truth of any subject which it might be designed to illustrate. The mere act of breaking the Negro's chains was the act of Abraham Lincoln, and is beautifully expressed in this monument. But the act by which the negro was made a citizen of the United States and invested with the elective franchise was pre-eminently the act of President U.S. Grant, and this is nowhere seen in the Lincoln monument. The negro here, though rising, is still on his knees and nude. What I want to see before I die is a monument representing the negro, not couchant on his knees like a four-footed animal, but erect on his feet like a man. There is room in Lincoln park for another monument, and I throw out this suggestion to the end that it may be taken up and acted upon.”

“There is room in Lincoln park for another monument,” Douglass wrote. He did not live to see it. In 1974, the National Council of Negro Women, Inc. (NCNW) dedicated “another monument” in the park, this one to Mary McLeod Bethune. At that dedication, again a crowd of thousands assembled. In order that the now two memorials may have a conversation, the Freedman’s Memorial was repositioned. Now, the Bethune Memorial – the first in Washington, D.C. to a Black woman - looks across the park at the first statue to show a Black man, paid for entirely by proud Black women and men, dedicated by lifelong warriors Frederick Douglass and John Mercer Langston.

Discomfort about the statue can serve as a reminder of the exhilarating, turbulent, and often violent period of Reconstruction. It reflects hopes, dreams, and – for many – coming failure. So many questions impacting the future were being forged in those moments. While America transforms around it, the Freedman's Memorial and Bethune Memorial are frozen in time, a silent witnesses to every generation that has battled for justice from Charlotte Scott, with her $5 and a vision, to the present.

Last updated: July 16, 2024

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