Calls are increasingly being made for the removal of two emancipation memorials in Washington, DC and Boston, depicting a freed slave kneeling at the feet of Abraham Lincoln – optics that offend and offend many in a country through a new lens that challenges racial injustice encounters.
Also known as the Emancipation Group and the Freedman’s Memorial, the Emancipation Memorial was erected in Lincoln Park in Washington in 1876. Three years later, a copy was installed in Boston, home of the statue’s white maker, Thomas Ball.
Demonstrators gathered earlier this week to demand the removal of the original in Washington, where the military fired about 400 unarmed National Guard personnel in anticipation of calls circulating on social media to abort it Thursday evening.
And in Boston, where a petition is circulating to remove the copy, the city’s art commission will hold public hearings on Thursday and next Tuesday to discuss its fate.
What was originally intended in 1876 to celebrate liberation, critics claim, is more like service and supremacy by 2020.
“I watched this man on his knees from childhood,” said Tory Bullock, a black actor and activist who led the campaign to remove the Boston monument.
“It should represent freedom, but still represents us among someone else. I would always ask myself, “If he’s free, why is he still on his knees?” Said Bullock.
The monument has been on Boston’s radar since 2018, when it launched a comprehensive assessment of whether public sculptures, monuments and other works of art reflected the diversity of the city and did not offend the color communities. The Boston Art Commission said she paid extra attention to working with “problematic histories.”
Black donors paid for the original in Washington; white politician and circus show Moses Kimball funded the copy on a downtown plaza a block from Boston Common. The inscription on both reads: “A race that will be released and the country at peace. Lincoln rests from work. ‘
But blacks were not part of the design process, and the monument’s central visual takeaway – a black man with broken chains kneeling in front of his white savior, with a whip pole and chains in the background – has been hurting people for years.
“How can you say you care about black lives and then leave a statue for decades that actually promotes a disgusting and demeaning image of those same lives?” Lilian McCarthy asked, among more than 12,000 people who signed the Bullock petition.
A similar contempt has haunted the original in Washington since it was revealed. When he was initiated nearly a century and a half ago, abolitionist and black statesman Frederick Douglass spoke critically of the depiction of the freed slave as kneeling before Lincoln.
The defenders of the monument claim that removing it is tantamount to erasing history.
“We have not yet achieved the greatest madness, but an appointment to tear down a statue of Abraham Lincoln known as the Emancipation Memorial in the name of racial justice should come close,” said conservative commentator Rich Lowry on Twitter .
But Eleanor Holmes Norton, the non-voting US House representative, said the monument ignores the fact that black Americans played a critical role in securing their own freedom.
“Blacks also fought to end slavery,” Norton tweeted this week, saying she would put forward a bill to move the statue to a museum.
Follow AP New England editor Bill Kole on Twitter at http://twitter.com/billkole.
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