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Depicted kneeling before Lincoln, this enslaved man broke his own chains in pursuit of freedom

The Emancipation Memorial in Washington's Lincoln Park depicts a freed slave kneeling at the feet of President Abraham Lincoln. Racial justice protesters want the monument removed. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Decades before he was depicted in bronze kneeling before President Abraham Lincoln, Archer Alexander longed for freedom.

“Go for your freedom ef you dies for it,” said Alexander, who was born enslaved in Virginia in 1813 and eventually escaped to freedom.

Alexander is the real-life model for the newly freed slave in the controversial Emancipation Memorial — also called the Freedman’s Memorial — in Washington’s Lincoln Park. Though it was commissioned and paid for by black people after the Civil War, racial justice protesters now say its imagery is offensive and are calling for its removal.

“The monument is historically inaccurate,” said historian Arica L. Coleman, author of “That the Blood Stay Pure: African Americans, Native Americans, and the Predicament of Race and Identity in Virginia.” “It gives the impression that we were just sitting around waiting for Lincoln to free us. That is not true. From the beginning of the war, we were running away. A lot of us were going into the Union lines seeking freedom. Black people were like, ‘I’m not sitting here waiting to be freed.’ So a lot of them just took off and they ran into the Union lines.”

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Many of the enslaved, she said, broke their own chains. And that was the case with Alexander.

Alexander was born enslaved at Kalorama, a plantation about 30 miles from Richmond, according to “The Story of Archer Alexander: From Slavery to Freedom,” published in 1885 by the Rev. William Greenleaf Eliot, the grandfather of poet and playwright T.S. Eliot.

When Alexander was still a child, his father, Aleck Alexander, talked to other enslaved people about escape.

“A good deal of discussion about slavery was going on at the time, which was not very far from the Missouri Compromise days,” Eliot wrote, “and Aleck had got some advanced notions of which he was rather proud, talking them out rather freely among his fellows.”

At a prayer meeting, Aleck Alexander told other enslaved people, “By the 'Claration of 'Dependence all men was ekal,” and that “to trade in men and women, jess like hogs and hosses, wasn’t ‘cordin’ to gospel, nohow,” according to Eliot.

Aleck Alexander was threatened that he would be sold if he did not stop talking of freedom. After he refused, he was sold south, where slave conditions were even more brutal.

“Aleck was sent on a pretended errand to a place near the slave-jail, taken quietly by Jim Buckner and his men, handcuffed, carried South the same evening,” Eliot wrote, “and nobody at Kalorama ever heard of him again.”

Archer Alexander’s mother, Chloe, was distraught. “She sat down, rocked her body backward and forward, and groaned aloud,” according to Eliot.

In 1831, the owner of the plantation, Reverend Delaney, died, with huge debts. Much of his land and many of its enslaved people were sold to pay debts. Chloe was given to Delaney’s widow. Alexander was bequeathed to Delaney’s eldest son, Thomas, who planned to move to Missouri.

Six months after Alexander was taken to Missouri, his mother died. In St. Louis, Alexander was hired out for work in a brickyard. He soon married a black woman named Louisa, who was enslaved on a nearby farm. A few years later, Thomas Delaney sold Alexander to the owner of the farm, where Alexander and Louisa had several children.

On April 12, 1861, the Civil War began. Alexander, who was still enslaved on a farm near St. Louis, heard reports of black people freeing themselves by joining the Union. “He had pretty well outgrown the spirit of bondage,” Eliot wrote, “and was already entered upon that of freedom. He was quite prepared to do his part in breaking his chains.”

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Alexander learned that Confederate sympathizers in Missouri had sawed through timbers holding up a bridge that Union troops would cross on their way to Jefferson City. He walked five miles and carried the warning about the damaged bridge to a man known to be loyal to the Union.

Because of this intelligence conveyed by Alexander, Union troops “repaired the bridge before crossing it,” Eliot wrote.

Word spread that Alexander had warned the Union troops. The owner of the farm promised to send Alexander to a local committee for punishment. Faced with impending danger, Alexander escaped in the middle of the night.

He joined a group of black men heading for freedom in the North. But the group was soon caught by slave catchers, who took them to a tavern on the south bank of the Missouri and locked them in a room.

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Alexander escaped again and eventually met Eliot, who sent word by a third party to Alexander’s owner, requesting to buy “your man Archer, or Archie, if it could be done for a small sum, in order to emancipate him.”

But the letter contained clues to Alexander’s whereabouts. A reply came from the owner, stating, “He didn’t mean to play into the hands of any Yankee Abolitionist; that he’d have the [expletive] yet, and take it out of his black hide."

One morning as Eliot set off for Washington University where he taught, Alexander was captured again. Hours later, Alexander was rescued from the catchers. Eliot placed him on a steamer to Illinois. He eventually returned to Missouri to be closer to Louisa and their 10 children. Decades later, the family of boxing great Muhammad Ali discovered through family DNA research that Ali was the great-great-great-grandson of Alexander.

On April 15, 1865, Lincoln was assassinated. After Lincoln’s death, a formerly enslaved woman named Charlotte Scott used her first $5 earned in freedom to launch a campaign to raise funds to build a monument to Lincoln, according to the National Park Service. Much of the rest of the money used to build the monument came from the “Emancipation Group,” including hundreds of black men who fought with the Union for their freedom. Congress allocated $3,000 for the monument’s platform.

The monument was designed by white sculptor Thomas Ball. Eliot, a member of the Western Sanitary Commission, in St. Louis, a relief organization that worked on the campaign to build the monument, encouraged Ball to use an image of a real man.

“I had photographs taken, and carried them home with me,” Eliot wrote. “The Commission thankfully adopted them, with one suggestion of change, that instead of the ideal figure of a slave wearing a liberty cap, and receiving the gift of freedom passively, as in the original marble group, the representative form of a negro should be introduced, helping to break the chain that had bound him. Mr. Ball kindly assented.”

Eliot gave Ball photos of Alexander. “His likeness, both face and figure, is as correct as that of Mr. Lincoln himself,” Eliot wrote.

In April 1876, more than 25,000 people, including President Ulysses S. Grant, attended the unveiling of the Freedman’s Memorial in Lincoln Park. Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist and famous orator, delivered a fiery speech about Lincoln’s conflicted legacy, explaining Lincoln only reluctantly issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

Days later, Douglass, wrote a letter to the New Republican newspaper criticizing the statue: “The Negro here, though rising, is still on his knees and nude. What I want to see before I die is a monument representing the Negro, not couchant on his knees like a 4-footed animal, but erect on his feet like a man. There’s room in Lincoln Park for another monument and I throw out this suggestion to the end that it may be taken up and acted upon.”

Neither Eliot nor Alexander were present at the dedication of the Freedman’s Memorial.

Alexander died in about 1880 in St. Louis. “His last words,” Eliot wrote, “were a prayer of thanksgiving that he died in freedom."

Read more Retropolis:

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Hamilton despised slavery but didn’t confront George Washington or other slaveholders

Frederick Douglass needed to see Lincoln. Would the president meet with a former slave?

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