Freedman’s Memorial: A Controversial Sculpture Honoring the Emancipation Proclamation

Emancipation Proclamation

The Emancipation Proclamation was a document issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863. The document stated “that all persons held as slaves” currently residing in actively rebelling states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” While the wording of this document seems quite straight forward, in reality, its application was more limited than the average American today is aware of. The issuance of this proclamation only applied to the states that had seceded from the Union and were not already under Northern control. The actual enforcement of the proclamation was also wholly dependent on subsequent Union military victories.[i]

 

The Emancipation Memorial

The Emancipation Memorial, also known as the Freedman’s Memorial or the Emancipation Group, is a statue located in Lincoln Park (Washington, D.C.) that was erected in 1876 as a way to pay homage and give thanks to President Lincoln for his issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation thirteen years prior. The bronze statue features President Lincoln standing with his left arm out-stretched over a crouching freed slave. Lincoln’s right arm, which holds the Emancipation Proclamation, rests on a pedestal. The kneeling slave is shackled to the base of the statue. Lincoln wears a jacket and pants, while the slave wears only a loincloth. The word “emancipation” is written in capital letters across the front of the base of the statue. Around the pedestal are various patriotic symbols, including George Washington’s face and a shield adorned with stars and stripes. Behind the figures is a whipping post on which a vine grows. The statue was designed and sculpted by Thomas Ball; however the idea for a memorial to honor Lincoln’s issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation came from, and was almost entirely funded by ex-slaves. The fundraising reportedly first began with a five-dollar donation from ex-slave Charlotte Scott. Today the statue and surrounding landscape is maintained by the National Park Service.[ii]

 

Good Intentions

It is generally understood that this statue was constructed with good intentions and while controversy over various aspects of the statue has arisen, it is important to remember that it does possess numerous positive qualities. The ex-slave featured in the statue was modeled after Archer Alexander, the last slave to be captured under the Fugitive Slave Act. [iii] This has been viewed as a positive attribute, because it depicted the characteristics of a real slave, rather than an idealized or overgeneralized figure. Additionally, although he is kneeling, he has a notably powerful physique. Some have even argued that he is in a position as if about to stand. This stance, along with the figure’s upward gaze could be indicative of the future rise of all former slaves. [iv]

The statue also presents Lincoln in a positive light. The word “emancipation” written across the base of the statue, while clearly referencing the Emancipation Proclamation, also promotes the legacy of Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator” in the American collective memory. Lincoln’s upright posture and outstretched arm seem to present him as an almost god-like figure. Lincoln’s hands, the right one holding the document and the left one extended over the former slave, are suggestive of the freedom he bestowed upon the slaves across the country. [v]

 

Controversial Consequences

Despite the many noted positive qualities of the statue, it was shrouded with controversy almost immediately after its construction. One aspect of the memorial that instantly draws criticism is the stature of the ex-slave. Frederick Douglass was invited to speak at the unveiling ceremony and mentioned that the statue “showed the Negro on his knee when a more manly attitude would have been indicative of freedom.” [vi] Furthermore, even though he is described as a freed slave, he still remains shackled to the base of the statue. Renowned sculptor Harriet Hosmer had designed an alternate potential version for the memorial, in which the freed slave was pictured holding a rifle, but ultimately Thomas Ball’s design was chosen.

 

The Memorial and Lincoln’s Legacy Today

As with the hundreds of other sites across the country associated with Lincoln, the Emancipation Memorial plays a role in our nation’s interpretation of his life and who he was as the leader of our country. This memorial presents Lincoln rather positively. The narrative associated with this memorial is one about freed slaves who wished to fund the construction of a memorial to give thanks and pay respect to the man that freed them. This narrative promotes the popularly held belief that Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation solely out of some kind of inner moral obligation. It has been documented though that there were political and military obligations that might have served as greater motivators for his issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation (https://livinglincoln.web.unc.edu/2015/04/15/antietam-and-the-emancipation-proclamation/). Regardless of his true motivation though, the collective memory our country maintains of him is generally one that portrays him as an honest man, natural leader, preserver of the Union, and freer of men. Even our current president helps maintain the positive memory we associate with President Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation (https://livinglincoln.web.unc.edu/2015/04/08/emancipation-proclamation-in-the-oval-office/). These positive attributes we associate with Lincoln are reinforced by documents like the Emancipation Proclamation and physical sites like the Freedman’s Memorial.

[i] “Emancipation_Proclamation.” National Archives and Records Administration. National Archives and Records Administration, n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2015.

[ii] “Lincoln Park.” National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, n.d. Web. 13 Apr. 2015.

[iii] “Lincoln Park.” National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, n.d. Web. 13 Apr. 2015.

[iv] Miller, Angela L., Janet Catherine. Berlo, Bryan Jay. Wolf, and Jennifer L. Roberts. American Encounters: Art, History, and Cultural Identity. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2008. Print.

[v] Miller, Angela L., Janet Catherine. Berlo, Bryan Jay. Wolf, and Jennifer L. Roberts. American Encounters: Art, History, and Cultural Identity. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2008. Print.

[vi] “Another View of the “Statue of Emancipation” – Picturing US History.” Picturing US History. The Graduate Center, CUNY, n.d. Web. 13 Apr. 2015.

One thought on “Freedman’s Memorial: A Controversial Sculpture Honoring the Emancipation Proclamation

  1. Hanyao Qi

    I’d like to see documentation presents the Freedman’s Memorial from this interesting historical perspective. In memorial of the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln, this memorial was constructed in 1876. This post provides a throughout examination and evaluation of the historical significance and reasoning behind constructing this statue and shed light on both appraisal and opposing voices. It is particularly intriguing to see the interpretation of black people kneeling down to Lincoln. Indeed, the design of this statue somewhat reflects the historical context and condition of black people during the emancipation.

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