The statue is arguably awful in its depiction of Lincoln lording over a formerly enslaved person. But rather than demolishing it, enshrine Douglass’s insights about the truths revealed here. Let signage quote Douglass’s words about Lincoln’s ambivalence toward abolition and convey Douglass’s conviction that Lincoln be judged in totality: “We saw him, measured him . . . not by stray utterances . . . not by isolated facts torn from their connection. . . . We came to the conclusion that the hour and the man of our redemption had somehow met in the person of Abraham Lincoln.”
Transcending the sins of history requires that we, like Douglass, understand that our heroes were flawed human beings. Let’s preserve the most valuable historical truth captured by this memorial: that, for African Americans, emancipation was just the first step in a long journey toward freedom. Lincoln may have freed the slaves, but he and his country did not invite the enslaved to stand upright.
Helen Mondloch, Fairfax
My family members live a long time; life spans of 90 or more years are not uncommon. My great-grandfather was born into slavery in about 1860. I was quite young when we met, and not realizing his historical significance, I barely remember snippets of conversations that he had with other family members 60 or more years ago. To my knowledge, he never mentioned the Emancipation Memorial. Yet many other emancipated people knew of it and contributed to what is said to be the only such monument financed from the meager resources of America’s formerly enslaved people.
While I understand that sensibilities are different today, I am disappointed that some of the descendants of these freedmen now seem ashamed of a creation of which their ancestors were proud. I firmly believe that the freed slaves’ depictions of their emancipation are at least as deserving of respect as are our perceptions nearly a century and a half later.
Gilbert M. Johnson, Bethesda
The statue of a freedman kneeling before Abraham Lincoln looks wrong to our 21st-century eyes, and Lincoln would have agreed. The statue is loosely based on an actual event at the end of the Civil War. On April 3, 1865, Lincoln visited Richmond after the rebels fled. He was greeted by jubilant freedmen, including one who knelt before him. “Don’t kneel to me!” Lincoln said, “That is not right. You must kneel to God only.”
Maybe the statue should be moved to a museum, but whether it stays or moves, it needs an interpretive plaque that explains that Lincoln wanted African Americans to stand, not kneel.
Peter Greaney, Columbia
Tearing down the Freedmen’s Memorial would mark the extent of our insanity, not our sense of justice. History gives us all the evidence we need to preserve it. It is noble, and was paid for by black free men and women. Frederick Douglass and President Ulysses S. Grant were there to commemorate. It is not perfect, but art and man never are. It is a reflection of the people and the time. The subject is freedom, not subjugation.
Let us focus our righteous anger on monuments to Confederate traitors and defenders of slavery. If Abraham Lincoln and Grant are defiled, we are in for one long, dark ride. Demanding perfection of anyone is demanding they play God. Human flaws found in our heroes illuminate truths about ourselves we might not otherwise see. It’s the capacity for change that counts. Lincoln and Grant changed the course of history — for the better.
Jeff White, Washington