The Emancipation Statue in Lincoln Park was dedicated in 1876, and depicts… (Kevin Clark/For The Washington…)
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.