But the two memorials have little else in common.
The Emancipation Memorial in the heart of Lincoln Park on Capitol Hill and the African American Civil War Memorial at Vermont and U Streets NW reflect not just the eras in which they were created, but the dramatic shift of sensibilities about race and the growing sense of African American empowerment that took place in the intervening years. They are both very much of their time.
That’s the thing with statues, of course. Once they’re set in stone — or bronze — they become fixtures, even as the world and the people around them evolve. A statue represents a thought entrenched. It stays mute and immutable as the conversation and thinking around it continues to swirl and morph.
And the conversation never ends.
An unwelcome image
Lincoln Park is a leafy urban oasis. Couples hold hands. Dogs romp and ramble. Toddlers squeal and scrape their knees. It would escape the attention of most visitors that the statue that gives the park its name has long been a source of controversy and even resentment.
Dedicated in 1876, the Emancipation Memorial depicts President Abraham Lincoln standing elegantly while, kneeling next to him, a former slave looks up with a forlorn expression. In one hand Lincoln holds a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, the document that declared slavery illegal in 1863. Lincoln’s other hand rests above the head of the freed slave (the model for the figure was Archer Alexander, a former slave made famous in a biography written by William Greenleaf Eliot). He is naked but for a loincloth. His broken shackles lie at his side.
The statue had its opponents even before it was cast.
Though former slaves paid for the memorial, its design was overseen by an all-white committee. Its sculptor, Thomas Ball, also was white.
Some critics felt the statue was paternalistic, that it ignored the active role blacks played in ending slavery. An alternate proposal for the memorial depicted a statue of Lincoln as well as statues of black Union soldiers wearing uniforms and bearing rifles. That option was considered too expensive.
And so we have Lincoln and the kneeling slave, a nation’s narrative cast in bronze: Lincoln the freer of the black man, the savior of a race that couldn’t save itself.
It’s an image that grates, says Hari Jones, assistant director of the African American Civil War Museum, which sits across Vermont Avenue from the African American Civil War Memorial in the U Street corridor. “I’ve never met anyone who said they liked it or that they were happy with it. I think it’s one that people kind of wish away.”