The statue by Thomas Ball depicts a Black man, shirtless and on his knees, in front of a clothed and standing Abraham Lincoln. In one hand, Lincoln holds a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, while the other is stretched out over the Black man. Ball intended it to look as though the man were rising to freedom, but to many, it looks like he is bowing down or supplicating to Lincoln.
Boston artist Tory Bullock, who started the petition, described it this way: “I’ve been watching this man on his knees since I was a kid. It’s supposed to represent freedom but instead represents us still beneath someone else. I would always ask myself, ‘If he’s free, why is he still on his knees?’ ”
Boston Museum founder Moses Kimball donated the bronze recasting of the original Ball statue to the city in 1879. The replica will be placed in temporary storage while the city figures out “a new publicly accessible location where it could be better explained,” Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said in a statement this month.
“The decision for removal acknowledged the statue’s role in perpetuating harmful prejudices and obscuring the role of Black Americans in shaping the nation’s freedoms,” Walsh said.
The original statue in Washington’s Capitol Hill neighborhood was also criticized over the summer during demonstrations following the police killing of George Floyd.
Officials placed the statue under police guard and surrounded it with protective barriers after a group of demonstrators tore down a statue of former Confederate Albert Pike a few blocks away and threatened to do the same with the Lincoln statue. Afterward, residents posted notes to the fence expressing their views; the fence was removed after several months.
The Emancipation Memorial statue was commissioned and paid for by a group of Black Americans, many of whom were formerly enslaved. But the group did not have a say in the design of the statue; that distinction went to an all-White committee and the artist, Ball, who was White.
It was dedicated on April 14, 1876, the 11th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination, before a crowd of 25,000 that included then-President Ulysses S. Grant. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass spoke at the unveiling, noting that the “Great Emancipator” Lincoln was reluctant to free enslaved people, and when he did so, it applied only to enslaved people in Confederate states. Enslaved people in most Union states were not freed until December 1865.
The Black man who modeled for Ball, Archer Alexander, was not freed by Lincoln but by his own actions. As The Washington Post’s DeNeen L. Brown wrote earlier this year, Alexander escaped his bondage in the middle of the night in 1861. He repeatedly evaded capture by his former enslavers.
Days after the unveiling, Douglass was the first to criticize the statue and suggest it be replaced or added to, in a letter to the editor of the National Republican newspaper. The letter was recently rediscovered by historians Jonathan W. White and Scott A. Sandage.
“What I want to see before I die is a monument representing the negro, not couchant on his knees like a four-footed animal, but erect on his feet like a man,” he wrote. “There is 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.”
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) has introduced legislation to remove the statue to a museum. Because it sits on federal land, it is administered by the National Park Service, not the District. Norton plans to determine whether the Park Service has the authority to remove it without congressional approval, she said.
“Although formerly enslaved Americans paid for this statue to be built in 1876, the design and sculpting process was done without their input, and it shows,” she said in a June statement.
As for the Boston replica, the city is now seeking suggestions on new work to place at the site.
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