Is it Time for the Kneeling Freedman Statue to Go?
Remolding our Political Aesthetics
At the beginning of each semester, I take my first-year college writing students at the George Washington University to Lincoln Park in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, D.C. The neighborhood park, often full of children, nannies, and dog walkers, is a perfect place for a field trip to discuss the class theme: how memorials and museums narrate U.S. history. There are two statues in Lincoln Park that I make sure we analyze: the Emancipation, or Freedman’s, Memorial, built in 1876, and the Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial, erected in 1974.
The contrast between the two is striking and one reason why I take students there. The Emancipation Memorial, designed by Thomas Ball, portrays a stern Abraham Lincoln standing over a kneeling, newly freed black man. In one of Lincoln’s hands is the Emancipation Proclamation; the other floats above the prone figure’s head. Based upon Archer Alexander, the last known person captured under the callous Fugitive Slave Act of the 1850s, the kneeling figure is barely clothed with a vacant look in his eyes. A broken chain lies nearby, as does a whip. Across the park’s small plaza sits a more modern memorial of Bethune, the black educator, civil rights activist, and member of President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Black Cabinet.” Designed by Robert Berks, best known for the bust of JFK at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Albert Einstein statue at the National Academy of Sciences, the statue depicts a hopeful Bethune gazing upward while two children look on. She, too, holds a scroll, a symbol of her legacy being passed on to a new generation.
While I always found the Emancipation Memorial disturbing in its paternalistic Lincoln and degraded freedman, the conversation that it seems to have with the Bethune memorial makes for an instructive space about shifting values, aesthetics, and politics over time. And yet, in the wake of the Charlottesville tragedy and a rising consensus over the inappropriateness of Confederate and other offensive statues in the public square, it may well be time to retire this memorial. Even one that includes Abraham Lincoln.
As scholars and activists have pointed out, the memorial was controversial from the start. Frederick Douglass, who spoke at the dedication, decried the statue for portraying “the Negro on his knees.” Unlike the current use of kneeling as solemn protest, this statue suggests that African Americans had no say in their own emancipation. This contrasts with the active role historians know African Americans played in freeing themselves — through operating the Underground Railroad, fleeing behind Union Army lines, taking up arms against the Confederacy, and any number of smaller actions. Moreover, the statue’s freedman seems lost, unsure of his new freedom. Perhaps that spoke for some, but for most, freedom was a welcomed change — a change that, by the time the statue was unveiled, was at great risk under the specter of white violence and federal capitulation.
The Emancipation Memorial has endured to this point for several reasons. First because it honors the still beloved and respected 16th president, the so-called Great Emancipator and savior of the Union. Lincoln did play an important role in emancipation, albeit a more ambiguous one than is sometimes recognized. Second, and despite the ambiguous final product, the statue is one of the few primarily funded by emancipated slaves. While these funders were shut out of the design process, still the statue remains a point of pride to some African Americans. Thirdly, the memorial remains a powerful artifact of the end of Reconstruction, including Lincoln’s own discomfort with black equality. Sadly, and perhaps most importantly, it is the resilience of white supremacy, on display in Charlottesville and elsewhere, which has allowed the statue to survive.
Those reasons, however, may not be enough anymore. Lincoln, of course, has his own larger-than-life memorial on the National Mall – a monument initially to saving the Union but one equally symbolic, thanks to its role in the 1963 March on Washington and other civil rights rallies, of the long black freedom struggle. Other monuments in the city, including the African American Civil War and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. memorials – not to mention the new National Museum of African American History and Culture – better capture the agency black historical actors had. African American donors played a significant role in funding all three. And then there is the presence of the Bethune statue, built at the height of the Black Power movement. As my students observed, several multiracial groups of children swarmed the two playgrounds beside Bethune’s memorial – an appropriate extension of her lifelong work in education. But for many of the children playing, they first had to walk by the kneeling slave. What an odd, perhaps confusing image for them to encounter on the way to play.
While I may miss the teaching moment the Emancipation Memorial offers now, were it to be removed an equally instructive lesson will take its place. The National Park Service, which maintains the space, should remove the statue – probably with the input of the surrounding neighborhood – and rededicate the park. Bethune Park, after all, has a nice ring to it.
Gordon Mantler teaches writing and history at the George Washington University. His work can be found at www.gordonmantler.com, and he tweets @gomantler.
 I must, in fact, acknowledge the generous work of my students in helping to compose the present essay.