Battlefield Markers & Monuments: Emancipation Memorial in Lincoln Park, Washington D.C.

An important monument of President Abraham Lincoln sits in Lincoln Park, a park in the Capitol Hill section of Washington, D.C. This statue is seen by thousands of people each day – the Emancipation Memorial. I wonder about how many of them know either of its history or importance to the memory of the Civil War.

Emancipation Memorial (Library of Congress photo)

Reminiscing of my boyhood days of playing football in the Lincoln Park, I would always spend several minutes looking at the Emancipation Memorial. I would just call it the Abraham Lincoln statue, remembering the story my Uncle Mac told me, “… this memorial was paid for by former slaves and Frederick Douglass dedicated it in 1876.” 

The Freedmen’s Memorial to Abraham Lincoln project began just after President Lincoln’s assassination. A former enslaved woman, named Charlotte Scott, gave her former master five dollars for a monument to President Lincoln. The effort acquired more African American support after a local Ohio newspaper publicized the story. As more African Americans supported the effort, Frederick Douglass became involved in this endeavor.  Eventually, the Western Sanitary Commission of St. Louis, a volunteer war relief agency, was persuaded to sponsor the project and “make it known to the freedmen.”1

Frederick Douglass

There was never the possibility of the freedmen influencing the design of the monument, the sponsor indicated, as it tried to acquire white donors. Several designs were submitted, some more elaborate than others, prompting a call for donations from whites who supported blacks during the Reconstruction era. However, white support was absent, as there were many additional plans for Lincoln monuments. Subsequently, John Mercer Langston, a prominent African American attorney, was selected to help with raising monies from African American communities, for this venture.

In 1871, Thomas Ball was selected to execute the sculpture for the memorial. His statue depicting President Lincoln standing over a kneeling slave who was dressed only in a cloth around his waist was demeaning to many African Americans. This caused a controversy in the black community. However, although distressed, blacks wanted to show their gratitude to Mr. Lincoln.

In his book, “Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America,” Kirk Savage, a historian and professor at the University of Pittsburgh, points out that opposition to the Emancipation Memorial isn’t a modern phenomenon.

The image of the kneeling slave was very common at the time, says Savage, but it rarely found its way into monuments. That it was used in such a prestigious one was offensive to many.

“It was resented by a lot of people,” Savage says. “It was like African Americans had done nothing for their own liberation. The role black Union soldiers played in fighting for emancipation was ignored, and that furthered the negative reaction to the statue.”

Mr. Douglass had insisted upon racial integration into the statue because he had demanded in 1865 – the black man’s “incorporation into the American body politic.”2 In spite of the design of the statue and because of his relationship with President Lincoln, he was the keynote speaker at the memorial’s dedication.

On April 14, 1876, in the presence of President Ulysses Grant, Frederick Douglass gave the keynote address, entitled, Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln. As usual, it was a powerful and eloquent oratory, expressing what President Lincoln meant to the country and to the black man, during his presidency.  There were 25,000 attendees in audience to hear this prominent African American lecturer.

I submit to you three excerpts of this powerful dissertation:

Fellow–citizens, the fourteenth day of April, 1865, of which this is the eleventh anniversary, is now and will ever remain a memorable day in the annals of this Republic. It was on the evening of this day, while a fierce and sanguinary rebellion was in the last stages of its desolating power; while its armies were broken and scattered before the invincible armies of Grant and Sherman; while a great nation, torn and rent by war, was already beginning to raise to the skies loud anthems of joy at the dawn of peace, it was startled, amazed, and overwhelmed by the crowning crime of slavery—the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. It was a new crime, a pure act of malice. No purpose of the rebellion was to be served by it. It was the simple gratification of a hell–black spirit of revenge. But it has done good after all. It has filled the country with a deeper abhorrence of slavery and a deeper love for the great liberator.

Lincoln

I have said that President Lincoln was a white man, and shared the prejudices common to his countrymen towards the colored race. Looking back to his times and to the condition of his country, we are compelled to admit that this unfriendly feeling on his part may be safely set down as one element of his wonderful success in organizing the loyal American people for the tremendous conflict before them, and bringing them safely through that conflict. His great mission was to accomplish two things: first, to save his country from dismemberment and ruin; and, second, to free his country from the great crime of slavery. To do one or the other, or both, he must have the earnest sympathy and the powerful cooperation of his loyal fellow–countrymen. Without this primary and essential condition to success his efforts must have been vain and utterly fruitless. Had he put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union, he would have inevitably driven from him a powerful class of the American people and rendered resistance to rebellion impossible. Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.

Fellow–citizens, I end, as I began, with congratulations. We have done a good work for our race today. In doing honor to the memory of our friend and liberator, we have been doing highest honors to ourselves and those who come after us; we have been fastening ourselves to a name and fame imperishable and immortal; we have also been defending ourselves from a blighting scandal. When now it shall be said that the colored man is soulless, that he has no appreciation of benefits or benefactors; when the foul reproach of ingratitude is hurled at us, and it is attempted to scourge us beyond the range of human brotherhood, we may calmly point to the monument we have this day erected to the memory of Abraham Lincoln.

Emancipation Memorial (Library of Congress photo)

“According to the historian John Cromwell, who heard the speech at close range, Douglass referred to the black figure only once, in an ad-libbed aside which did not appear in the published version….Cromwell later paraphrased it, Douglass objected to the monument’s design because ‘it showed the negro on his knee when a more manly attitude would have been indicative of freedom.’ The concern here with ‘manliness’ is consistent with Douglass’s lifelong understanding of masculinity as the structural opposite of slavery, an understanding that inevitably gendered emancipation as well.”3

A Washington Post article dated April 15, 2012, mentions the change to the monument.  This change occurred during the Civil Rights activities during the 1970’s. Washington D.C. was undergoing significant changes in its communities as prominent African Americans were recognized for their accomplishments. The memorial originally faced the Capitol, with a direct line of vision to the nation’s most powerful building. When a statue celebrating African American educator Mary McLeod Bethune was erected in the eastern half of Lincoln Park in 1974, the Emancipation Memorial was rotated 180 degrees to face it.

1 – page 91, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves by Kirk Savage, Princeton University Press, 1977

2 – page 117, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves

3 – page 117, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling slaves

About stewardthenderson

Civil War historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park and living historian with the 23rd Regiment USCT and 54th Massachusetts Infantry Co. B. I am also a member of the Trail to Freedom Committee in the Fredericksburg, VA area and a member of the John J. Wright Museum in Spotsylvania, VA.
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One Response to Battlefield Markers & Monuments: Emancipation Memorial in Lincoln Park, Washington D.C.

  1. Rob Wilson says:

    Thanks Steward. I have visited the monument and I am familiar with the controversy over the kneeling slave about to be liberated. But I didn’t know the backstory of how it had been financed and built, and I have not read not read Douglass’ dedication address. The background and quotes you provided– including the “editorial comment” he reportedly offered when he went off-script– really round out that monument’s story.
    I’m curious, did your Uncle Mac make any comments about the statue that indicated he might think it controversial?

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