A monument to white supremacy stands uncontested in our own back yard
What, if anything, are we going to do about it?
After Charlottesville and amidst the debate over statues of Lee, Davis and other confederate monuments, I came across an image of the Emancipation Memorial in Washington, D.C. The striking monument features a stately Abraham Lincoln standing over an unnamed, barely-clothed black man who is kneeling at his feet. Newly emancipated, the man’s shackles have been broken, but its manacles still decorate his wrists. Lincoln’s left arm is extended over the man’s head, ostensibly bestowing freedom upon him. Yet, Lincoln’s hand is facing downward as one would when tousling a child’s hair, or worse, petting an animal. Indeed, at just the right angle, that’s exactly as it appears.
A white Lincoln occupying the space above, looking down upon a black man kneeling below — it’s this power dynamic that caught my eye, and, frankly, infuriated me. I shared the image with my students and in some invited talks as a means to discuss white supremacy, the white savior complex, and the multi-headed beast that is systemic racism.
I’ve shown this image to a bunch of friends and the reaction is always the same — first a painful grimace, then they grab my phone for a better look, and ask, “is that actually up somewhere right now?” “Yes,” I’ve answered, adding, “and there’s more than one of them.”
In researching the image, I was reminded that I’d seen it before, in person. An exact replica stands in Boston’s Lincoln Square, a small patch of grass just off the Boston Common, nestled between luxury condos and hotels including the Park Plaza and the Four Seasons. I first saw it as a college student two decades earlier and recall telling friends how racist it seemed. What does it mean that I had completely forgotten, even as the debate about statues was raging, that a monument I’d once viewed as racist stood uncontested in my own back yard?
Erected in 1876, the original Emancipation Memorial sits in D.C.’s Lincoln Park, a forgotten stretch of grass in a residential neighborhood just one mile from the U.S. Capitol Building. The National Mall was mostly swampland then, while Lincoln Park was considered prime real estate. And so, it was with great fanfare that this national monument was dedicated. President Ulysses S. Grant, supreme court justices, members of congress and foreign dignitaries were among the 25,000 people in attendance — black and white. Federal employees were even given the day off to attend the ceremonies. This was a big deal.
The push for such a monument began almost immediately after Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. Upon hearing of his death, Charlotte Scott, a freed black woman, gave the first five dollars of her earnings to create a memorial to the martyr-president. The Western Sanitary Commission in St. Louis, an agency that helped care for newly freedmen and refugees during the war, took on the task of raising additional funds. The monument would be the first of its kind to be funded solely by freedmen, a tribute to their beloved emancipator. The Sanitary Commission played on this sentiment, issuing a letter inviting all freedmen to contribute to a monument to “Massa Lincoln.”
$17,000 was raised to fund the memorial — an enormous sum coming from a newly emancipated people. Predictably (and this is important), none of these donors had a say in the monument’s design.
Instead, the all-white Commission led by Rev. William G. Eliot set out to find a suitable tribute. Eliot met with Massachusetts-born artist Thomas Ball, who had sculpted Boston’s acclaimed George Washington statue. Ball was working in Florence, and, upon hearing of Lincoln’s death, sculpted a smaller version of what would come to be known as Lincoln and a Kneeling Slave.
Eliot and the Commission liked the concept, but thought the kneeling figure was depicted as too subservient, and asked for changes be made. Notably, the “liberty cap” was removed and the figure’s right arm was stretched outward to indicate that he was rising up as a free man. Nailed it!, they must have said upon seeing the updated design, which was then cast in bronze.
If you think the final version fails to effectively connote the agency or dignity owed to any human, enslaved or free, then you’re in good company. Frederick Douglass gave the keynote speech at the 1876 dedication. He had long pushed for a monument to The Great Emancipator, but was similarly displeased with the final outcome, remarking that the statue “showed the Negro on his knee when a more manly attitude would have been indicative of freedom.”
The black figure on bended knee was likely a remix of a widely-viewed image depicting the plight of enslaved people. Accompanied by the plea “AM I NOT A MAN AND A BROTHER?,” the image appeared on medallions worn by abolitionists and became a symbol of the anti-slavery movement.
Did Ball consider his work an homage to the abolitionist movement, or was it representative of his own views on the white / black dynamic? That’s unclear. Regardless, the juxtaposition of a kneeling black man and a towering Lincoln is evocative of the paternalistic sentiment that was typical of whites of the era — slaveholders and abolitionists alike — toward blacks, free or enslaved.
Yet another change to the original version was made at the behest of Eliot. In a bid to add a touch of realism, he asked Ball to model the facial features after Archer Alexander, a formerly enslaved man who later became Eliot’s servant. That Alexander was enslaved in Missouri, a border slave state exempted from the Emancipation Proclamation, which therefore did not confer freedom upon him, was apparently of no consequence to Eliot or Ball.
The Boston replica, called the Emancipation Statue, was erected in 1879. A gift from Ball’s former employer, Moses Kimball, it was similarly placed in an venerable location, with a direct line of sight to the State House.
The dedication took place in Faneuil Hall (due to rain). The official program perpetuated the narrative that the design presented the slave figure as having a role in his own emancipation:
In the original the kneeling slave is represented as perfectly passive, receiving the boon of freedom from the great liberator. But the artist justly changed this to bring the presentation nearer to the historical fact, by making the emancipated slave an agent in his own deliverance. He is accordingly represented as exerting his own strength, with strained muscles, in breaking the chain which had bound him. A greater degree of dignity and vigor, as well as historical accuracy, is thus imparted.
The Emancipation Statue was a great source of pride for Boston. Each year, the mayor and other dignitaries would hold a ceremony, complete with speeches and a wreath laying.
In 1934, newly elected Mayor Frederick Mansfield, unaware of this custom, neglected to plan such an event. Citizens flooded City Hall with protests. In response, the City Council quickly passed an order that council members were to purchase a wreath with their own funds and place it on the statue. They did so, well after dark. In photos of the event, Mayor Mansfield is notably absent.
Of course, the emancipation statue was not universally accepted. Quite the contrary. Noted art historian Freeman Henry Morris Murray pointedly criticized the work in 1916, noting that the kneeling figure seemed to have “…little if any conception of the dignity and power of his own manhood.”
Chandler Rathfon Post, another art historian, remarked in 1921: “The real merits of conscientious portraiture in Ball’s own representation of Lincoln… are obscured by the unfortunate appearance that he has given to the negro of polishing the President’s boots.”
This notion of the figure as a shoeshiner dated back to 1892, when the Boston Evening Transcript noted the figure’s pose was suggestive of him “blackening Lincoln’s boots,” and the Evening Telegraph mockingly asked, “Shine, sir?”
This unfortunate nickname stuck with the statue for decades, although little was done to challenge its continued existence. One notable exception was in 1982, when Boston City Councilman Bruce Bolling, citing concerns from the black community, questioned whether the statue should be moved or even permanently removed. A Boston Globe story at the time noted, “Some say it appears as if the crouching figure is shining Lincoln’s shoes. They say it makes Lincoln appear to be The Great Patronizer.”
The Boston Art Commission, which was tasked with deciding the monument’s fate, received pushback from, among others, the Lincoln Group of Boston. They cited the historical significance of emancipation “for freedom, equality, and democracy,” yet offered no comment on the concerns of Boston’s black citizens. It’s unclear whether this argument or another won the day, but what we do know is that Lincoln remains today in Park Square, looming mightily over a black man kneeling at his feet.
The emancipation statue has received its fair share of criticism in more recent years too. Historian Kirk Savage published a scathing critique of the design in his 1999 book, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves:
Ball’s emancipated man is the very archetype of slavery: he is stripped, literally and figuratively, bereft of personal agency, social position, and accouterments of culture. Juxtaposed against the fully dressed, commanding figure of Lincoln, the black figure’s nudity loses its heroic aspect and works instead as negation — most drastically a negation of the conventional markers of masculinity now monopolized by the white man above. Frozen forever in this unfortunate juxtaposition, the monument is not really about emancipation but about its opposite — domination.
Building on Savage’s critique, art historian Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw added:
Ball’s monumental sculpture is a typical example of the effort to create public images that would maintain white superiority and the authority of the emancipatory act under the guise of Christian benevolence toward blacks.
More recently, think pieces discussing the controversy have appeared in publications as diverse as The Washington Post, The Weekly Standard and The Root, each taking issue with the imbalance in racial power and the lack of dignity given to the unnamed black figure, but none calling for its removal.
Of course, this was before Charlottesville and our national debate over what to do with statues and other monuments that fail to represent our values. If statues of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and John C. Calhoun are clearly contrary to who we are as Americans today, then what to do with Lincoln and the unnamed, nearly-naked black man kneeling at his feet in D.C. and Boston?
Bostonians in particular need not be reminded of our national reputation — a politically progressive city, yes, but also one with an embarrassing racial past and present. From violent resistance to school desegregation efforts in the 1970’s, to our shameful status as one of the nation’s most racially segregated cities, the last thing we need is a monument to white supremacy.
Boston’s beloved Red Sox have shown that we need not be bound to our past. Then owned by Thomas Yawkey, one of the most racist figures in all of sports, the Red Sox became the last team to sign a black player in 1959 — more than a decade after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier. Recognizing this shameful past and motivated to do something about it, team ownership has led the charge to rename Yawkey Way, which runs alongside Fenway Park.
In announcing its new Take the Lead initiative, encouraging fans to speak up and call out those using hateful or racist speech, current team owner John Henry noted:
We, like many Americans, made the mistake of thinking that our region’s and country’s less-than-stellar pasts were firmly behind us, that 21st century America was becoming a more inclusive nation committed to celebrating diversity. That is not the case.
Henry is right. Achieving equity and inclusion requires constant vigilance. It also requires us to consider our past — honoring it when appropriate, and moving past it when necessary.
What, then, to do with these monuments to white supremacy that have stood in Boston and Washington, D.C. for 140 years?
Should we leave them be? Thinking back to my own experience two decades ago, I’d have to say no. As a newcomer, this statue made me suspicious of a city that would put up such an obviously racist monument. It reinforced existing stereotypes of the City and affirmed harmful notions of white benevolence and superiority.
This insulting memorial honors Lincoln, yes, but at whose expense? The unnamed, nearly-naked man is but a prop used to provide a sense of perspective — Lincoln looming even larger because of the figure below.
I didn’t have the historical knowledge then to say what I do now — it must go.
How about a plaque providing historical context? What could a plaque possibly say that would counter the thousands of words evoked by the image before us? Would it give the unnamed, nearly-naked person the dignity he deserves? Would it make him look less like a shoeshine boy, or a child, or an animal? Would it stand him up beside Lincoln, as equals?
No? Then, it must go.
There are lessons to be learned from this ill-conceived, perhaps unintended tribute to white supremacy. These statues should go where lessons of the past are best learned — in museums, contextualized by educators drawing parallels to modern conceptions of race and existing inequities.
Monuments are markers in time, erected in a present to tell future generations what we value, and perhaps what they should value too. In this nation, long ruled by a white patriarchy, that has meant uplifting slaveowners because of their notable contributions, while glossing over their complicated pasts and ignoring the contributions of women, blacks, and other marginalized groups.
The case of the emancipation statue is unique, because it honors a true (yet complicated) hero at the direct expense of one such group. We have to be wise enough to discern the difference between this and any other statue of Lincoln. We have to recognize that just because an image is cast in bronze and set upon a granite base by those with the privilege and power to do so, we are not bound to honor it for all of eternity.
This is our opportunity to show who we are as a community, as a generation. Will we challenge our mayor to take it down? Even better, will the mayor, upon reading this, take proactive steps to remove this monument without the public pressure and protests that usually precede such action?
It’s important to remind ourselves, there is no neutral position here. This monument to white supremacy will come down some day. The only question is, will we be the ones to do it, or will we pass the buck to the next generation?
The shame of this depiction belongs to those who came before us, but every day that passes makes it more and more our own.