Emancipation Memorial (Freedman’s Lincoln Memorial)

Thomas Ball


At first glance, we look at a monument and see only the person, event or whatever it commemorates.  But to look at the monument itself also must involve looking closely for the trace of the makers and their rhetoric. Every monument is a sort of time-capsule of the moment that produced it.

Everyone knows the Lincoln Memorial, the single-most visited monument in Washington.   But far lesser known is another public monument to the same president, erected nearly 50 years earlier, in a similarly privileged (though less tourist-laden) location.  In fact, it is on the exact same direct line with the US Capitol as the Lincoln Memorial itself, though in the opposite direction.  The existence of these two very different monuments to the same person highlights just how much a monument does to package, or even remake, its subject in line with the sponsors, makers and general cultural assumptions available at its time.  This “alternative” Lincoln gives us a fascinating way to compare different versions not just of monuments but histories of the same person.

Washington’s Lincoln Memorial of 1922, which gives as its main justification that Lincoln “saved the union,” is the paradigm of the “white” Lincoln memorials which emerged in the 1880’s.   This monument, by contrast, bears one word as its virtual title: emancipation.  It depicts nothing but that very action, surely the thing for which Lincoln is best known today.  Strikingly, it even places a black freed slave, not a generalized figure but a specific portrait, on the same pedestal as the great president himself.

This unique monument is the product of a unique and often ignored moment in American history: Reconstruction.   Beginning at the end of the Civil War and officially ended the very year of this monument’s dedication, it well illustrates the aspirations, limitations and contradictions of the time, America’s brief attempt to create a racially-equal society.

The word “emancipation” is a sort of caption describing the drama unfolding on the pedestal.  Lincoln stands upright in a simple waistcoat. His left hand is held out in a sort of benediction over the kneeling former-slave.  His right holds the scroll of his emancipation proclamation as it rests on a small pedestal adorned with symbols of state power and tradition. These symbols delineate a long tradition of state authority, including even the ancient Roman fasces that have a long afterlife in American monuments (including the Lincoln memorial).  The slave wears only a loincloth.  He looks out and upward, his wrists still shackled though the chain that bound  them is now cut and his right hand is significantly curled into a clenched fist.

It is difficult to view this monument today, and people rarely do.  While it does address the Civil War’s defining issue, it does so in a distinctly paternalistic/racist manner, distinguishing the upright, civilized White Man allowing the more beastly, ground-dwelling Black Man to come to his level.   Not surprisingly, this sculptural group soon earned the popular epithet of “shine, sir?”  Frederick Douglass spoke at the dedication of the monument, and while his published remarks include no mention of the sculpture itself, he is said to have added an aside that the statue “showed the negro on his knee when a more manly attitude would have been indicative of freedom.”  But even Douglass’s published remarks are as much critical as celebratory, calling Lincoln “preeminently the white man’s president.”   Similarly, the Emancipation Memorial is preeminently the white man’s memorial.  It shows clearly that a conception of a black man as free, equal and upright was publicly not admissible, or perhaps even imaginable, to the national agencies that sponsored and produced the monument, despite the good intentions and genuine accomplishments of the Abolitionist/Reconstructionist movement.

Indeed the irony of the statue’s representation is at least matched by that of its production.  Sometimes known as the “Freedmen’s monument,” the sculpture was paid for solely by the contributions of freed slaves, as a plaque on the pedestal proclaims.  But, as was only possible at the time, every aspect of monument’s design and production was done by whites.  Its sculptor Thomas Ball, a former slaveowner, was clearly uncomfortable with blacks in his studio. Only at the last minute, under direction from the monument’s sponsor, Ball changed the slave figure from a generalized, allegorical one to a particular man, named Archer Alexander.  Alexander was on the run from slavery in Missouri in 1863 when he was harbored by the Rev. William Greenleaf Eliot, a Unitarian minister, college president and vigorous abolitionist.  Eliot was among the directors of the organization, The Western Sanitary Commission, that sponsored the monument.

The Emancipation Memorial thus eternalizes a meeting between two people who never met at all.  But that’s not all.  Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation applied to the states of the confederacy, not border states like Archer Alexander’s Missouri.  The monument also celebrates the emancipation of someone who was not actually emancipated by it at all.