With a Statue to Frederick Douglass, Blacks Have Their Say in What Freedom Means

Image of the Week: African Americans’ contributions to the Civil War would no longer be ignored, thanks to this powerful tribute to the man who served as Abraham Lincoln’s moral conscience. 

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Sidney W. Edwards, Frederick Douglass Monument, 1899. Bronze, 8 feet.

Highland Park, Rochester, N.Y.

This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black Archive & Library at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

Commanding a low rise in a verdant park in Rochester, N.Y., the monolithic figure of Frederick Douglass stands in eloquent testimony to a life indispensable to the cause of freedom. A more august, showy monument could hardly convey the same frank characterization of inspired leadership. The emphasis here is instead on concentrated frontality marked by unadorned realism.

The great leader, risen from the powerless status of slavery, assumes a simple standing pose, his body wrapped in a long, open frock coat, both arms lowered and with the open palms of his hands held outward as he addresses an ideal audience. This measured oratorical gesture is reflected in the calm demeanor of his face. He seems lost in thought, as though pausing before making his next point.

Douglass is presented in a pose of fervent action, delivering an address in Cincinnati on the occasion of the passage in 1870 of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, which guaranteed the vote to all male citizens of the country. Large bronze plaques fixed to a high granite base bear the texts of some of Douglass’ best-known speeches from the period just before the Civil War. One cites his remarks on West Indian emancipation, delivered at Canandaigua, N.Y., in 1857. From the same year came his still-hopeful affirmation of “the growth of reform [on] American soil” in the face of the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision.

Dedicated in 1899, the Douglass monument soon became a local landmark in Rochester, consistently taking its place in every city guidebook. The importance of the figure as an iconic symbol of freedom and opportunity for black Americans was not lost on W.E.B. Du Bois, who included a small-scale replica of the statue in his groundbreaking presentation of racial uplift at the Paris Universal Exposition in 1900.

There could have been no more appropriate place for a monument honoring Douglass than Rochester. In 1847 he chose the bustling city as the locus of his widespread abolitionist activities. The proximity of the city, long an important center of anti-slavery activism, to the Canadian border made it an ideal transit point for slaves escaping to freedom. Douglass published the North Star, his highly influential abolitionist newspaper, from this bastion of safety for his people. With the eloquence of his oratory, his striking personal appearance and a wrenching, firsthand account of bondage, he quickly emerged as one of the most electrifying voices to speak out against slavery.

Though African Americans revered Abraham Lincoln as a transcendent savior figure, it was Douglass, the self-liberated slave, who served the crucial role as Lincoln’s moral conscience, relentlessly prodding an often reluctant president along the difficult course that would lead to emancipation. After spending 25 years in the city, in 1872 Douglass moved to the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D.C., to pursue a career in government service.

The Douglass monument had its origin in the ongoing public neglect of the contribution by African Americans to Union victory in the Civil War. Disappointed at not seeing black veterans represented on the grand Soldiers and Sailors Monument that had recently been dedicated in Rochester, John W. Thompson, a leading black citizen of Rochester, took action to remedy the slight. He proposed that the black community erect its own tribute to the service of African Americans in the war. As part of the same work, he included a tribute to Douglass. The funding effort began within his church and the local chapter of the all-black lodge of the Free and Accepted Masons, Prince Hall.

Douglass himself had been consulted on the design of the memorial but died suddenly just after the initiative had begun. The project soon coalesced around a single large figure of the great leader in bronze. A sculptor from the Washington area, Sidney W. Edwards, was engaged to design the statue. As his model, Edwards used Douglass’ son Charles, who at the time was in his early 50s. The face of the statue therefore resembles Douglass in his mature years during the all-important period of the Civil War and Reconstruction and not at the end of his life.

The statue was first placed in a prominent location in front of the municipal train station in downtown Rochester. It was formally unveiled on June 9, 1899, with then-New York Gov. Theodore Roosevelt giving the key address. The original site was felt to be disadvantageous by some because of the crowded, increasingly polluted environment of the urban center. In 1941 the statue was transferred to the more verdant setting of Highland Park, not far from the cemetery where Douglass had been buried. All in all, the decision to relocate the monument seemed appropriate. It now faces out over an amphitheater, clearly evoking the large audiences who flocked to hear Douglass’ stirring addresses.

The Douglass monument is important as a key example of how African Americans themselves chose to honor one of their greatest advocates in the struggle for emancipation. The quiet dignity of Douglass’ oratorical stance eclipses the overtly pandering, transcendent symbolism of earlier sculpted tributes to the end of slavery. The contrasting image of the grateful, just-liberated slave who kneels before Abraham Lincoln in the Freedmen’s Memorial in Washington, set up just after the Civil War and planned by a white committee, shows just how much more effectively the ideal of freedom could be communicated when placed in the hands of those who desired it most.

Edwards’ image of quiet dignity serves as an ideal beginning for the monumental representation of African Americans in sculpture. However, many decades passed before another large-scale public statue was erected to a black person in the United States. Recently, however, this situation has been redressed, not least of all by the dedication of another statue of Douglass in Emancipation Hall, a venerated locale within the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, which also contains John Wilson’s haunting black marble bust of Martin Luther King Jr.

Countless other monuments of all types and configurations have been created across the country to honor the role of African Americans in securing their own freedom. As impressive as these latter-day and long-overdue tributes are, most can only aspire to the simplicity of presentation accorded to Douglass just as the great leader passed from the scene.

The Image of the Black Archive & Library resides at Harvard University’s 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.

The Image of the Black Archive & Library resides at Harvard University’s 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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