But it’s not just Confederate or imperialist memorials that advance the work of white supremacy. In fact, a commemoration of the very president hailed as the “Great Emancipator” and assassinated for freeing the slaves — Abraham Lincoln — also promotes the idea of white superiority in monumental form.
In the District of Columbia, there is no shortage of commemoration for Lincoln. There is perhaps no person (with the exception of George Washington) in the United States who has more memorials, buildings, roads, towns and counties named in his or her honor.
Of the major commemorative markers to Lincoln in D.C., the most troubling is the Emancipation Memorial (also known as the Freedmen’s Memorial Monument to Abraham Lincoln), which sits in Lincoln Park, steps away from the U.S. Capitol. The statue features a standing Abraham Lincoln with the Emancipation Proclamation in his hand over a kneeling newly freed African American man. But this monument has been the subject of some controversy since its unveiling in 1876 because of who originated the idea of the monument, who paid for it and who ultimately designed what it would look like.
The monument was paid for almost exclusively by formerly enslaved people, who from 1865 onward raised more than $16,000 for the building of the statue. According to the story told and retold in newspapers at the time, on the day after Lincoln’s assassination, Charlotte Scott, a formerly enslaved black woman living in Marietta, Ohio, gave her first earnings as a free woman to build a monument to Lincoln. From there, more donations grew and then became a national movement when the Western Sanitary Commission, the wartime relief agency, took control and publicized the idea of for a monument from the freedmen in honor of Lincoln. A New Orleans Tribune article from Aug. 10, 1865, proclaimed: “On the spot where Freedom’s ‘best defender fell,’ let his name and the cause for which he died be most highly honored.”
The men and women who raised the money, however, did not choose the design of the monument. It was seemingly never in question, according to art historian Kirk Savage, that the prominent white men of the Western Sanitary Commission would decide what it should look like. They first commissioned a design from Harriet Hosmer, a white, queer female sculptor who planned an elaborate monument that depicted African American history through four figures and Lincoln placed at the center as the martyred hero.
This design, however, proved to be too expensive. After trying to create a large enough fund for an elaborate monument to Lincoln, the Commission chose an already existent design by Thomas Ball, a white man. Ball made tweaks to the kneeling black man’s face to look like Archer Alexander, a formerly enslaved man employed by the head of the Western Sanitary Commission.
On the day of the dedication, Frederick Douglass, the African American civil rights advocate, gave a speech where he spoke of his ambivalence of a statue that solely praised Lincoln, and in an offhand remark said that the statue “showed the Negro on his knee when a more manly attitude would have been indicative of freedom.”
The statue fed a narrative that men like Lincoln led emancipation, rather than showing how the struggle for freedom was driven by the millions of African Americans who fought for their liberation from the institution of slavery. Lincoln infamously was slow to embrace the idea of emancipation and abolition, and as noted by Douglass in his dedication address that day, “the Union was more to him than our freedom or our future.” It was African Americans who fought for their abolition, with the often-reluctant support of the federal government.
The fact that the monument stands in Lincoln Park under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service and across from a memorial to Mary McLeod Bethune, the African American educator and civil rights activist, makes the Emancipation Memorial at best a remembrance of a whitewashed version of the emancipation struggle. What’s worse, it depicts the struggle to abolish slavery as something easily solved by a piece of paper signed by a president rather than a violent, bloody process that demanded the participation of both white and black Americans.
Today, we are having a national reckoning with our nation’s history. As Confederate monuments are removed throughout the South, as statues of Christopher Columbus are taken down by activists who rightly point out the problem of commemorating a man who began the colonization of the Americas, we also need to look at other memorials and monuments that dot the commemorative landscape across the United States, including those that were placed with the best of intentions. The Emancipation Memorial was funded by newly freed slaves, but they had no voice in the process of creating the monument, and their voices and work are lost in the story the memorial now conveys.
Because monuments embody what we deem important enough to place in public space, they must change as society changes. In the past, changing monuments led to the tearing down of a King George III statue in New York City in 1776; more recently, it has been the long awaited removal of John C. Calhoun’s statue in Charleston, S.C., and the news that the American Museum of Natural History in New York City is getting rid of the often denounced statue of Teddy Roosevelt outside its entrance.
While this doesn’t mean that we need to tear down the Emancipation Memorial, it does require that we recontextualize it to ensure that it gives voice to those who have been left out and acknowledges the very people who paid for it in the beginning. Adding this context would help begin the process of making this monument an accurate reflection of those who wanted to place it in the nation’s capital.
In his address at the dedication of the Emancipation Memorial, Frederick Douglass said that in commemorating Lincoln, African Americans were “doing highest honor to ourselves and those who come after us.” To fulfill this effort, we should create something that commemorates not just Lincoln, but those who funded the memorial in the first place and whose efforts were at the heart of emancipation.