By David J. Kent
Wednesday, February 1, 2023
Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington, DC's representative in the U.S. House of Representatives, today reintroduced a bill that would remove the Emancipation Statue from Lincoln Park in the District of Columbia. This is the third session of Congress in which she has introduced the bill. The bill would move the statue into a museum "with an explanation of its origin and meaning."
The statue grouping, referred to alternatively as the Emancipation Memorial or the Freedman's Memorial, has been in place in Lincoln Park since 1876. Originally facing west toward the U.S. Capitol, it was rotated in 1974 to face east into the park directly at the newly erected Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial. The Emancipation Memorial, sculpted by Thomas Ball, depicts Abraham Lincoln freeing an enslaved man. That man is modeled after Archer Alexander, a formerly enslaved man who is depicted in the sculpture "on one knee, about to stand up, with one fist clenched, shirtless and broken shackles at the president's feet." Funding for the statue was entirely provided by formerly enslaved people, beginning with a $5 donation from freedwoman Charlotte Scott. Frederick Douglass gave the dedicatory address on April 14, 1876, in a ceremony attended by President Ulysses S. Grant and other dignitaries.
Norton acknowledges this history in her press release, but notes:
"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. "The statue fails to depict how enslaved African Americans pressed for their own emancipation. At the time, they had only recently been liberated from slavery and were grateful for any recognition of their freedom."
The design of the statue has been controversial. Douglass, about a week after the dedication, when pressed on how the Archer Alexander figure was presented, acknowledged that while the statue was "admirable," it does not "tell the whole truth." [See here for a discussion of Douglass's views] Notwithstanding its history, some people have found the design of the monument objectionable. In 2020, during the height of protests begun after the killing of George Floyd and expanded into various monuments, a copy of the Emancipation Memorial statue that had stood in Boston was removed.
In 2020, the Lincoln Group of DC participated in two "teach-ins" at the Emancipation Memorial in the District. The goal was to avoid its attempted destruction by mob rule and instead provide a resource for learning about the history of the Memorial. A description of those events can be read here.
Previous iterations of Delegate Norton's bill received no action, and it is unclear whether the Republican-controlled House of Representatives will take action on the newly introduced bill. What is clear is that the Emancipation Memorial will continue to stimulate strong feelings both for its removal and for its continued presence. Since it resides on National Park Service property, and NPS is barred from removing or adding any statue without congressional passage of a codifying law, the current NPS plan is to leave the monument in place and work with the community to develop additional education signage to more fully explain the history, and the controversies, of the Memorial. The Lincoln Group of DC will continue to monitor the status and provide expertise and resources necessary for greater public understanding.
[Photo by David J. Kent, 10/18/19_IMG_1965.jpg]