On Emancipation Day in D.C., two memorials tell very different stories
By Joe Heim,
Separated by about three miles and 116 years, two Washington memorials tell vastly different stories about the Civil War, African Americans and their journey to freedom.
Both were funded in large part by blacks. Both mark the first steps of what would be a long, arduous and often treacherous march to emancipation and civil rights. And on Saturday morning, both were the settings for ceremonies kicking off D.C. Emancipation Day events commemorating the 150th anniversary of the freedom of slaves in the District, an act that came a full nine months before the Emancipation Proclamation.
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.”
Jones say that when he first arrived in Washington years ago a friend of his grandfather took him on a tour of the city, showing him neighborhoods and houses and churches and statues that either had a particular significance or were sources of pride for African Americans.
He didn’t take him to Lincoln Park.
‘You can’t ignore its significance’
A little history:
The dedication of the Emancipation Memorial on April 14, 1876, the 11th anniversary of President Lincoln’s assassination, was not a low-key affair. This was Washington’s original Lincoln Memorial. President Ulysses S. Grant attended the ceremony, as did members of his cabinet and of Congress. Frederick Douglass provided the keynote address. A crowd of some 25,000 listened.
It was a source of great pride for many blacks at the time — and still for many today — that the cost of the memorial was funded by former slaves. They recognize that the imagery of the statue isn’t ideal. But they embrace it nonetheless.
“I was attracted to it because it was the only monument paid for by former slaves,” says Loretta Carter Hanes, the 85-year-old educator and historian who was instrumental in leading the movement that created Emancipation Day as a holiday in the District in 2005. “The statue is something that is of that time and that place, but we need to study it as part of our history. We owe it to [our ancestors].”
That message was echoed at the Lincoln Park ceremony early this past Saturday morning.
“It may seem outdated and it may seem subservient, but no one can ignore its historical significance,” Washington historian and writer C.R. Gibbs told the small group of activists, onlookers and reporters in attendance. “It meant something to the people of its time and if it meant something to them, it means something to us.”
Also at the ceremony was Anise Jenkins, president of Stand Up! For Democracy, an advocacy group for D.C. statehood. She understands the mixed feelings about the statue.
“It’s part of our history and it depends what you bring to it,” Jenkins says. “If you’re ashamed of our history of slavery, then that’s what you bring to it. But we have to be honest. Enslaved people loved Abraham Lincoln. They called him Father Abraham. You can question [the statue] from a modern perspective, but you can’t ignore its significance.”
In his book, “Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America,” Kirk Savage, a historian and professor at the University of Pittsburgh, points out that opposition to the Emancipation Memorial isn’t a modern phenomenon.
Savage quotes a witness to Douglass’s oration at the memorial who wrote that Douglass said the statue “showed the Negro on his knees when a more manly attitude would have been indicative of freedom.”
The image of the kneeling slave was very common at the time, says Savage, but it rarely found its way into monuments. That it was used in such a prestigious one was offensive to many.
“It was resented by a lot of people,” Savage says. “It was like African Americans had done nothing for their own liberation. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation piggybacked on a process that had already begun by the slaves themselves.” The role black Union soldiers played in fighting for emancipation was ignored, Savage says, and that furthered the negative reaction to the statue.
Some of the hard feelings lingered.
The memorial originally faced the Capitol, with a direct line of vision to the nation’s most powerful building. But when a statue celebrating African American educator Mary McLeod Bethune was erected in the eastern half of Lincoln Park in 1974, the Emancipation Memorial was rotated 180 degrees to face it.
The introduction of the Bethune memorial had an unintended effect. Some African Americans unhappy with the Lincoln statue began referring to the park as Bethune Park. The name didn’t stick for long, Gibbs says, but it remains part of the lore.
Full of purpose
Later Saturday morning, at Vermont and U streets NW, a larger Emancipation Day ceremony took place at the African American Civil War Memorial, which faces the U Street Metro entrance.
The focal point of this late 20th-century memorial is a statue bearing the images of three black Union infantrymen and one black Union sailor. All four men are standing. The looks on their faces are determined, full of purpose. The soldiers carry guns. There is nothing meek about it. An inscription reads: Civil War to Civil Rights and Beyond. Two messages are clear: Blacks fought for their freedom; that work is not yet finished.
The memorial, the product of a years-long effort led by former D.C. Councilman Frank Smith, was not built as a response to the Emancipation Memorial and yet it can feel like one.
“I prefer the more accurate image of African Americans fighting for our place at the table,” Smith says. “And it has been a fight, too.”
On panels along the walls of the memorial are the names of African Americans who served in the Union forces in all-colored regiments.
It’s a long list. Booker Swope . . . Craddock Jefferson . . . Cornelius Coffin . . . Whitfield Oliver . . . Martha Nunley . . . James Bristol . . . Paddy Chapple . . . Pompey Way . . . Peter Ferguson . . . Grief Harper.
There are 209,145 names. Names not forgotten, ignored or shunted aside.
The memorial was dedicated on July 18, 1998, 133 years after the Civil War ended. History takes its time.