Yes, The Freedmen’s Memorial Uses Racist Imagery. But Don’t Tear It Down.Roundup
tags: slavery, emancipation, monuments, public history
The Freedmen’s Memorial in Washington is not a Confederate monument. It famously exhibits a standing Abraham Lincoln seemingly giving freedom to a kneeling black man naked from the waist up, whose chains are being broken. It was and is a racist image. This is hardly the monument our culture would create today as a memorial of emancipation. But none of us can ultimately have our history or memory pure. Memory is always about the politics of the present, but the righteous present is not always right.
Do not tear down this monument. I fully understand that protests are not forums for complexity; current demonstrations are the results of justifiable passion and outrage. It is reasonable to clear our landscape of public commemoration of the failed, four-year slaveholders’ rebellion to sustain white supremacy known as the Confederacy, even if it doesn’t erase our history. But the Freedmen’s Memorial is another matter. For those contemplating the elimination of this monument, including D.C.’s delegate to Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), please consider the people who created it and what it meant for their lives in a century not our own. We ought not try to purify their past and present for our needs.
A huge parade involving nearly every black organization in the city preceded the dedication of the monument on April 14, 1876. The procession included cornet bands, marching drum corps, youth clubs in colorful uniforms and fraternal orders. Horse-drawn carriages transported master of ceremonies and Howard University law school dean, John Mercer Langston, and the orator of the day, Frederick Douglass, a resident of that neighborhood. Representatives of the entire U.S. government sat in the front rows at the ceremony; the occasion had been declared a federal holiday. President Ulysses S. Grant, members of his Cabinet, members of the House and Senate and justices of the Supreme Court all attended.
The $20,000 used to build the monument had been raised among black Americans, most of them former slaves. A former slave woman, Charlotte Scott, had donated the first $5. The sculptor, Thomas Ball, lived and worked in Italy. The model for the kneeling slave, Archer Alexander — a former slave — was photographed numerous times and had his pictures sent to Ball. Ball believed he depicted Alexander as an “agent in his own resistance,” an assumption of course roundly debated to this day.
A young black poet from D.C., Cordelia Ray, recited an original poem, “Lincoln.” Grant, who did not speak, pulled the cords and unveiled the statue. Douglass then took the podium and delivered one of the greatest speeches of his life.
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