John O'Brien Via Lincolnian
February 15, 2021
No action before legislation
History presenters at the Emancipation statue teach-in included Nathan Richardson as Frederick Douglass, and the women of FREED, Female RE-Enactors of Distinction, who represent outspoken women of the Civil War period including Charlotte Scott, a former Virginia slave, who contributed her first pay as a freed woman toward the statue. (Photo credit: Bruce Guthrie).
The intense campaign of last summer for the removal of statues in Washington that were deemed "racist" is not yet concluded. The Emancipation Group statue of Lincoln freeing an enslaved man still stands in Lincoln Park on Capitol Hill where it was dedicated in 1876. The Lincoln Group of DC was one of several organizations that participated in a "teach-in" during the height of the protest and removal effort on June 26, 2020. The statue is the only tribute in the District to Lincoln and Emancipation. Its image of a Black man apparently bowing before a towering White man is considered by many to be distorted history and offensive. Lincoln Group members are divided on the issue, as well. Our organization has not taken a position, but thought it appropriate to participate in an education event.
Carl Adams, John O'Brien, and Ray Rongley (not pictured) represented the Lincoln Group at the June 26 history teach-in event at the Emancipation statue. (Photo credit: Bruce Guthrie)
Protest leaders had demanded that a crouching Black man beside Lincoln was an image beyond redemption and had to be destroyed. Further, a group of African American scholars presented an interpretation of history that holds Lincoln had nothing to do with improving conditions for Black people. African Americans at the June event also presented arguments in favor of preserving the statue for historical memory.
Re-enacters portraying Frederick Douglass and heroic women of the period, such as Elizabeth Keckly and Myrtilla Minor, made an important contribution to the success of the event. Douglass again delivered the speech made at the statue’s dedication in 1876. He described Lincoln as Douglass knew him, defects and all. But he also gave Lincoln full credit for doing what no one else was capable, when he delivered the greatest act of social justice in our history; the Emancipation Proclamation. These powerful presentations gradually calmed and engaged the audience. Discussion followed and passions were largely cooled.
The protective fence that went up around the statue on June 24 to prevent unilateral action was taken down on September 16. The City of Boston removed a copy of the Emancipation Group statue from its downtown location on December 28.
The statue in Washington is owned by the Federal government's National Park Service. Any legal attempt to move it will require an act of Congress. The District of Columbia's representative to Congress, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, has introduced a bill to move the statue, probably to one of the Smithsonian Institutions. Norton agrees that the image of the statue is a problem. “You see Abraham Lincoln up there with his hand over a Black man,” she told the Washington Post. “That, for someone like me, is par for the course. I’ve always seen it as a relic.” She went on to compare the current statue removal efforts to the movement that led to the landmark civil rights legislation of the 1960s. Norton said that many Americans today are showing no tolerance for “any indication that we respect our racist past.” She said, "As long as those symbols of racism are alive and well, we have not gored the snake, it lives among us.”
But in regard to other statues, Norton said the country needs to be careful that it doesn’t “erase history for its own sake.” She wants a commission to study the lives of the Founding Fathers, and suggested additional markers could be added to existing monuments that reflect the complexity of their lives. Although George Washington owned slaves, she pointed out, he struggled with the morality of the practice and, at the end of his life, ended up freeing them.
Del. Norton introduced HR 7466 last July. It died with the end of Session and will need to be re-introduced before any action can be taken. .
Today, the capital’s only memorial to the Proclamation still stands. The conversation continues. The Lincoln Group will stay engaged with this debate to assure a full and fair presentation of facts and to assure that Lincoln's role in removing slavery from the United Stares continues to be recognized as his supreme act and culmination of his life's work.
Emancipation Statue Removal Act, HR 7466 (July 1, 2020, now expired)
This bill directs the Department of the Interior to ensure that the Emancipation Monument is removed from Lincoln Park in the District of Columbia. Interior shall donate the Emancipation Monument to a museum or other similar entity. The recipient of the Emancipation Monument may not store, display, or exhibit the monument outside, but if the monument is stored, displayed, or exhibited outside, ownership of the monument will revert back to the federal government.