How a Statue of a Freed Slave Kneeling at Lincoln’s Feet Missed the Point

Image of the Week: The Freedmen’s Memorial Monument to Abraham Lincoln in Washington, D.C., was designed with the sincerest of intentions.

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In 1875 the full-sized model was cast in bronze and shipped to Washington. It was set up in a large verdant area about a mile due east of the Capitol, designated by Congress as Lincoln Square. The site bore a special significance for the work. During the Civil War, it was the location of Lincoln Hospital, where large numbers of wounded soldiers were cared for. The monument was dedicated on April 14, 1876, the anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination. Delivering the keynote address was Frederick Douglass, the renowned abolitionist and champion of the rights of blacks as free citizens of the United States.

Douglass, as well as many others—both then and now—had strong reservations about the appropriateness of this tribute to Lincoln’s legacy. At the memorial’s dedication in 1876, he made an apparently offhand remark, as reported by an attendee: “He [Douglass] was very clear and emphatic in saying that he did not like the attitude. It showed the Negro on his knees, when a more manly attitude would have been more indicative of freedom.”

Writing in 1916, Freeman Henry Morris Murray, known as the “first black art historian,” articulated his critique of the monument by likening the kneeling slave to a sinner requiring pardon, his subjected state magnanimously redeemed by an indulgent white authority. In contrast to Ball’s own particular conception of liberty, Murray sees a conflicted figure, with no sense of self-agency, dignity or even the awareness of his newfound freedom, inspiring the popular rejoinder, “Shine, sir?”

With time, works of public validation like the Emancipation Memorial came to be supplanted by more suitable symbolic language. The classical structure of the Lincoln Memorial, dedicated in 1922 and housing the seated figure of Lincoln by Daniel Chester French, now seems the consummate joining of architecture and sculpture in the expression of a national ideal of equality. No slave is visible, but inscriptions on the walls within record everything Lincoln stood for: emancipation, civil rights and the preservation of the Union.

Built during the suspended promise of Reconstruction, the monument served as the inspired backdrop less than half a century later for one of the pivotal moments of the civil rights movement. Directly before the shadowed gaze of Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. stood and delivered words in answer to the aspirations of a people still waiting for the promises of a dream too long deferred.

The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root’s editor-in-chief. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.

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