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Why does D.C. celebrate emancipation in front of a statue that celebrates 19th-century racism?

Photograph by Chris Gunn

As a light rain envelops Capitol Hill’s Lincoln Park on the morning of April 15, a group of people gather to lay a wreath at the foot of the park’s Emancipation statue. It’s a small crowd, about 40 people, and there are few non-gray heads under the collection of umbrellas. The program of speeches and songs, which lasts about two hours, commemorates the day in 1862 when President Abraham Lincoln signed the “Act for the Release of certain Persons held to Service or Labor in the District of Columbia,” freeing the District’s 3,100 slaves.

Emancipation Day was once a big deal in the District. According to Constance McLaughlin Green’s 1967 The Secret City: A History of Race Relations in the Nation’s Capital—considered by many to be the definitive history of black D.C.—the celebration once rivaled the Fourth of July, featuring grand parades with thousands of spectators and participants.

“On April 16, city streets always brimmed with prancing horses, wagons and carriages decked with gay flowers or bright ribbons, high-stepping soldiers and brass bands,” D.C. historian C.R. Gibbs wrote in a 1985 Washington Post piece on the rise and fall of the holiday. After Emancipation was dedicated in Lincoln Park on Emancipation Day 1876, the statue became a focal point for the yearly celebration.

Like much of black D.C.’s post-Civil War political

routine, however, Emancipation Day didn’t make it into the 20th century. According to Craig Schiffert, who wrote on the subject in the 1998 anthology First Freed:

Washington, D.C. in the Emancipation Era, the celebration faded “because the local black bourgeoisie, refusing to be seen in public with large and enthusiastic crowds of African American ruffians, withdrew vital institutional and financial support.”

In 1899, wrote Schiffert, the District school board stopped closing “colored schools” on Emancipation Day, citing a need to protect young people from “sights that are at once demoralizing and degrading.” Muggings, fights, and conflicts between different factions of parade organizers brought the pageant to an end by the start of the new century.

This morning’s celebration, in fact, traces its roots back only as far as the early 1990s. With an assist from the Historical Society of Washington D.C. and the National Park Service, educator Loretta Hanes revived the holiday in 1993, staging a small annual wreath-laying at the statue. In March of this year, the D.C. Council passed a bill officially making April 16 District of Columbia Emancipation Day. (It is because April 16 is a Sunday that this year’s Emancipation Day is being celebrated on April 15.)

At the celebration, the legendary figures who made late-19th-century D.C. the intellectual capital of black America are invoked again and again. As the speakers continue, it becomes clear that the event is an effort to reconnect D.C.’s contemporary black community with the spirit and energy of their forebears from the age of Frederick Douglass and Sen. Blanche K. Bruce as much as it is a commemoration of emancipation.

And, in at least one key aspect of the celebration, the 19th-century feel is just the problem. Sitting impassively behind the assembled, Emancipation, a solid bronze statue darkened by age and made even more somber by overcast skies and the rain that trickles down its smooth surface, shows a male slave in a crouching position, naked save for a loincloth. Lincoln stands above the slave, holding his left hand out over him.

Controversial even in the 1870s, the statue seems downright offensive today. The slave in the statue is nearly on his knees in subservience to Lincoln. The symbolism was supposed to represent Lincoln freeing the slave. Today, it looks as if the 16th president is about to pet the man—a fairly appropriate artifact of 19th-century white society’s insistence on gratitude from freed blacks.

In this vision of the statue, Lincoln symbolizes white America, the slave black America. White over black, eternally frozen in bronze. It may say a lot about 19th-century America, but it’s no way to draw a crowd in 21st-century D.C.

Erected during the final year of Reconstruction, Emancipation was paid for by funds raised from freed slaves and African-American veterans of the Civil War. The idea was to build a monument to Lincoln in the nation’s capital.

African-Americans, however, did not control the statue’s production. Instead, design was spearheaded by a St. Louis outfit called the Western Sanitary Commission. A group of prominent whites who provided relief to the newly freed slaves, the Sanitary Commission collected funds and selected the sculptor for the monument.

“There was never any possibility that the donors themselves might influence the design,” explains University of Pittsburgh art historian Kirk Savage, whose Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America won the 1998 John Hope Franklin prize for the best book in American studies. “The sponsors made it clear that it was ‘the friends of the freedmen’ who would ‘determine the character of the monument.’”

And the sculptor the sponsors selected to carve their monument, in any event, wasn’t particularly friendly to the African-American donors. The autobiography of Thomas Ball, who sculpted Emancipation while living in Italy, shows an artist so racist that he could not stand the presence of an African model for the statue in his home. The African, complained Ball, “was not good enough to compensate for the unpleasantness of being obliged to conduct him through our apartment.” So Ball used his own body as a model.

Later, when the statue’s sponsors ran short of money, Ball’s friend the Rev. William Eliot suggested that instead of casting an entirely new sculpture, the sculptor should simply modify one of his earlier works, Lincoln and a Kneeling Slave. Eliot pushed Ball to substitute the figure of former slave Archer Alexander for that of the generic black man. During the Civil War, Eliot had helped Alexander—a fugitive in Missouri, and therefore part of the slave population untouched by Lincoln’s emancipation—fight for his freedom.

If the fact that he wasn’t even freed by Lincoln doesn’t prove Alexander a poor choice as model for a monument to the Great Emancipator, the way Eliot must have portrayed Alexander to Ball might do the trick. Eliot’s book, The Story of Archer Alexander, From Slavery to Freedom, paints the ex-slave with a full palette of demeaning stereotypes.

“The blacks are a docile and easily controlled race,” wrote Eliot. “Subordination does not come hard to them.” Eliot depicted Alexander as childlike, superstitious, and in need of guidance from his white social betters—subservient qualities his pal Ball captured brilliantly in the sculpture.

Not that it looked a whole lot like Alexander, whom Ball had seen only in photographs. Black art critic Freeman Murray concluded in his 1916 book Emancipation and the Freed in American Sculpture that the only changes Ball made to differentiate Emancipation from Lincoln and a Kneeling Slave were small alterations to the facial features, allowing the sculptor and the statue’s patrons to say that Alexander shared the pedestal with Lincoln.

Displeasure with the monument began the very day Emancipation was dedicated. When Douglass spoke at its inauguration, he departed from his prepared speech to criticize the statue. Emancipation, he said, “showed the Negro on his knees when a more manly attitude would have been indicative of freedom.” D.C. newspapers didn’t report Douglass’ criticism of the statue, but audience member John Cromwell, a Howard University historian, recorded the remarks for posterity.

Hanes, for one, insists that we not look at this figure as a slave—or as subservient at all. “This is not just an ordinary man,” says the octogenarian from under an umbrella, standing before the figure at the ceremony. The crouching figure, she says, is that of “a hero to the Union Army.”

But to Murray, Lincoln’s gesture above the slave seems to say, “Go, and sin no more,” and the position and attitude of the figures in Emancipation evokes a world unworthy of celebration.

“The monument is not really about emancipation but its opposite, domination,” adds Savage. The sculpture, Savage concludes, has simply “reasserted the old racial structure and power relations of slavery.”

Over the last few decades, the once lily-white sculptural landscape of Washington has been transformed. The proliferation of new statues has created several sites that would better suit a reborn D.C. Emancipation Day than the bronze relic in Lincoln Park.

Just across the park from Emancipation, in fact, stands a statue of Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of the National Council of Negro Women. Erected in 1974, the Bethune figure stands straight and tall, living up to the statue’s message of hope and education.

The Spirit of Freedom statue at the African-American Civil War Memorial would make an even better spot to celebrate Emancipation Day. Unveiled on July 18, 1998, at 10th and U Streets NW, it depicts African-American soldiers and sailors standing ready to defend their freedom and their families. The Spirit of Freedom is the first sculpture by an African-American man on federal land in the District, and it is no coincidence that Ed Hamilton’s sculpture features none of the subservience that permeates Emancipation.

Back at the celebration, speakers describe D.C. Emancipation Day as an occasion for educating youngsters, like the small group of students from Benjamin Banneker High School in attendance. But if the statue shows anything, it is that the presenters—so eager to celebrate the legacy of older black leaders—have missed an educational opportunity. “Using the monument as a backdrop without discussing its ironies,” notes Savage, “would be a colossal mistake.” CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Chris Gunn.