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.
5 thoughts on “Is it Time for the Kneeling Freedman Statue to Go?”
An excellent meditation on our changing relationship to the Emancipation statue. I wonder, though, if a better alternative to removal would be to erect beside the current statue a mirror statue of a standing emancipated slave removing a cover from a kneeling Lincoln. That would more properly depict the one’s historical relationship to the other. Lincoln After all could not have become the great emancipation – the reason he is revered – were it not for slaves forcing him into such a role.
There is no better alternative simply because the state of the American Decendent Of Slaves has not gotten better. Mass incarceration is ramphant, the Black family isbin shambles due to a shambled set of rules created for us, the financial state of the Black American skillfully mastered to ensure wealth never touches or remain in Black hands for a legacy to pass on – only perpetuated poverty and so many other atrocities for planned genocide. I suggest to keep these statutes in a historic place for the Anglo-Saxon to revere. There is one statue that is so perverse it makes me sick – in light of all we know about the rape and sexual implications – remove them all form sight because in the minds of some, they believe this state of thought is at this time and always how American Decendents Of Slaves (ADOS) are to be treated.
I’m a white, 60 year old female, my first thought is”Tear it Down!” It makes it look like a white person was superior over a black person, which would have been reversed, if the white person would have been the minority, that was how America had set up itself for what type of work was needed in that era, as far as abuse, not all white men were abusive, but that is a mental issue/demon some white men have, and still have, if they abused their workers/slaves, they were also abusing their family members and friends, it does not just stop at one person, or persons!
It is clearly a freed slave looking up to his future, while beginning to stand after being freed from the bonds of slavery (his wrists show the broken bonds) by President Lincoln.
If it was about kneeling, the freed man would be on both knees looking down at the ground and his hands and feet bound and his mouth gagged. If you see anything else, i guess you are probably wish that in your onw mind.
A plausible reading of the memorial at its unveiling and now is one of comfort to the racist white viewer. Lincoln is towering over the slave with his arm outstretched and angled downward. The arm suggests not a rising up for the freed slave, but rather assurance to the racist white viewer that the chain might be broken, but have no fear — we will keep them in their place. And we have had 158 years of evidence to support that reading.
On June 25, 2020, David W. Blight, Yale History Professor, wrote an opinion in the Washington Post titled “Yes, the Freedmen’s Memorial uses racist imagery. But don’t tear it down.” I’ve read Blight’s 2018 book titled “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.” It is a good book. I was surprised, given the depth of his knowledge, by how weak his arguments are in the Washpo opinion. The fact that it was funded by the black community (most of them former slaves) is a point for remove not for remain — it doesn’t take much imagination to feel their disbelief and disappointment in 1876. By his own research, Blight should know that Douglass would have been on the side of remove.
So, to answer your question Professor Mantler: “Is it Time for the Kneeling Freedmen’s Statue to Go?” Yes — yes it is finally time for it to go.