Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C.

This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black in Western Art Archive at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

In a quiet park in the nation’s capital, the paternal figure of Abraham Lincoln steps forward to extend the benediction of freedom above the kneeling body of a black man. Thus emerging from slavery, the nearly naked figure looks up resolutely past the Emancipation Proclamation held within Lincoln’s other hand toward an unseen future.

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Though the monument has been controversial since its inauguration, its beginnings reflected the sincerest of intentions. Upon hearing the shocking news of Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, 1865, Charlotte Scott, an African-American domestic servant living in Marietta, Ohio, spontaneously gave $5 to her employer, who forwarded this, her life savings, to a local minister. Her wish was to erect a proper memorial to the slain president, regarded by African Americans as the Great Emancipator.

Scott’s unselfish act of faith soon attracted the attention of the national press. A chain of events was set in motion that was to give concrete form to the monument. James Yeatman, president of the Western Sanitary Commission, officially acted on behalf of former slaves and black veterans of the Civil War who had offered to fund the monument solely with their own contributions. Ironically, none of the black donors was included in the selection process for the monument’s design.

In almost everyone’s mind, the martyred president’s chief accomplishments were the preservation of the union and the freeing of the slaves. But just how to give such epochal events appropriate expression in the enduring form of a public memorial remained to be resolved.

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From the generic proposal for a “freedmen’s memorial monument to Abraham Lincoln,” plans quickly focused on the visionary leader’s transformative act of emancipation. Unitarian minister William Greenleaf Eliot, an official at the Western Sanitary Commission, recalled a figure of Lincoln that had impressed him in the studio of Thomas Ball, an expatriate sculptor living in Florence, Italy. The acclaimed artist had felt compelled to give material form to the fallen leader’s legacy as a purely personal, spontaneous gesture of admiration and respect.

Ball set to work immediately on a “small group” of two figures, one of Lincoln, the other of a slave kneeling at his feet. Within a short time he had fashioned the essential form of the work seen here. Plans were made to create a scaled-up version with the figure of Lincoln about 9 feet high. The artist introduced several changes to the figure of the former slave to produce the definitive state of the monument. Eliot forwarded to Ball a photograph of Archer Alexander, the last black person to be captured under the Fugitive Slave Act. The idealized features of the bondman were now invested with a personal sense of destiny.

The concept that had so profoundly impressed Eliot was couched in terms of a common visual trope of the slaves’ struggle against tyranny. Since late in the previous century, the isolated image of a naked, chained slave had become emblematic of both the enslaved condition of the bondman as well as his fervent desire for freedom. As used by abolitionists, the self-referencing nature of the image was underscored by the motto, “Am I not a man and a brother?”

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Ball altered the original impact of this potent symbol of resistance by introducing the kneeling slave into a more explicit rhetorical context. No longer isolated in his appeal to an unseen power, the slave kneels, newly freed, under the benign gesture of the towering, Christ-like figure of Lincoln. Paradoxically, once liberated, the figure loses his former pathos and urgency.

The relationship of the two men, whose eyes never meet, projects the sense of a new state of affairs but one in which the former slave exists ambiguously in a compromised state of freedom. As art historian Albert Boime points out, a pious fiction is concocted by which freedom comes solely at the discretion of whites, condemning its recipients to a pernicious new bond of eternal gratitude and obligation. The future of the liberated man in the freedmen’s monument, still bound by the now redundant image of the supplicant slave, seems very much in doubt.

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.

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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.

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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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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 chairman of The Root. 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.