Since this is Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, it seems appropriate to write about a memorial to him in Washington, D.C. No, not the famous one shown in movies, but one that has become misunderstood over time.
Lincoln Park sits twelve blocks east of the U.S. Capitol Building, a rectangular expanse of grass amidst blocks of residential streets. During the Civil War, Lincoln Hospital, named for the President, stood on this site. In 1867 Congress designated it Lincoln Square in memory of the martyred president, one of the earliest official sites to bear his name. Today the park is maintained by the National Park Service and is a place where neighbors meet, young people sunbathe, and dogs exercise.
A large statue of Lincoln stands at one end, left hand outstretched over a freed slave bowing at his feet with broken shackles around his wrist. The President holds a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation in his right hand. Behind the two figures are symbols of slavery – a ball and chain, a whip and a whipping post cut down and covered with cloth. A rose vine is beginning to cover the items. The statue heralds Lincoln’s role in the Emancipation Proclamation that freed slaves in the Confederate states.
Today many people question the monument’s message – the depiction of a subservient black man prostrate to a benevolent white man speaks to the importance of historical context and the recognition of cultural change. The statue was funded by a campaign begun by an African American woman named Charlotte Scott from Virginia. Scott used her first $5 earned in freedom to begin fundraising for the Freedmen’s Memorial Monument to Abraham Lincoln. The campaign solicited contributions exclusively from those freed slaves who had directly benefited from the Emancipation Proclamation – primarily African American Union veterans. Congress accepted the statue from “the colored citizens of the United States” and appropriated money for the statue’s pedestal. The model for the slave was Alexander Archer, reportedly the last man captured under the Fugitive Slave Act. At the time of the statue’s dedication in 1876, Lincoln’s memory was undergoing transformation into that of the Great Emancipator. Frederick Douglass, the noted abolitionist, himself a former slave, spoke at the event.
Without the knowledge of the monument’s rich historical context, one can easily view it as a relic of simple veneration. Certainly Lincoln’s legacy has its detractors and his motives for emancipation have been continually analyzed. But it is important to remember that every monument can tell several stories― stories about the object of commemoration and stories about the monument itself: its creation, design, funding, location, and the motives of those who commissioned it. Monuments are products of their culture and era. While some manage to transcend those bounds, others do not.
Looking out at the crowd at the monument’s dedication, Frederick Douglass gave a passionate speech about Lincoln’s complicated relationship with African Americans. He said “He [Lincoln] was the white man’s president, with the white man’s prejudices and he had been ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the humanity of the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people.” “Lincoln was neither our man nor our model.” Addressing the whites in the audience he continued, “You are the children of Abraham Lincoln, we are at best his step children; children by adoption; children by force of circumstances and necessity.” He concluded that even if Lincoln was motivated by political expedience by signing the Emancipation Proclamation, he is “our liberator.” Written in large capital letters on the front of the statue’s pedestal is EMANCIPATION.
Are there other Lincoln memorials you’ve seen? Tell about them.