Emancipation Memorial Still Stands in Washington, D.C., for Now (WSJ)
WASHINGTON—Hundreds of demonstrators gathered in Lincoln Park on Friday evening for a heated but largely peaceful demonstration about the fate of a statue of Abraham Lincoln freeing a black slave.
By late Friday night, the statue with the fence around it remained untouched.
The landmark, known as the Emancipation Memorial, has become a flashpoint for demonstrators who object to its depiction of a kneeling black man as undignified and in a style they consider racist, including some who have called for it to be moved or torn down.
Friday’s rally was billed as a commingling of protest groups, some of whom had previously wanted the statue forcibly pulled down and others who either wanted it to remain or be removed to a museum by official channels. But divisions quickly emerged among those who find the image of the slave, and the suggestion that black freedom relied entirely on the beneficence of President Lincoln, objectionable. Heated arguments broke out between demonstrators who want the statue removed and others who say it honors the work of the freed slaves whose donations paid for the sculpture. Hours earlier President Trump signed an executive order stiffening penalties for damaging what he called “American Monuments.”
“Are y’all done hearing from people who do not want change?” said Glenn Foster, an organizer. “So what are we going to do? We are going to tear that motherf—er down! And if you don’t like it, you don’t like it.” That brought an angry response from Marcia Cole, a re-enactor who had arrived in costume as Charlotte Scott, the freed slave whose $5 donation in the wake of Lincoln’s assassination started the campaign to raise money for what was then known as the Freedmen’s Memorial Monument. Ms. Cole said the image of the kneeling slave was one of promise. “His chains are broken; he knows he’s free,” she said, adding, of Charlotte Scott, “You have no right to besmirch her legacy.”
Meanwhile, those who have tried to forge a consensus to move the statue to a museum said they believe the cause is gathering force, despite some disagreements Friday. One of them, Marcus Goodwin, a candidate for the D.C. Council, launched a petition drive to relocate the statue last week, after climbing atop the memorial in a bright blue suit and posing for a photograph standing alongside Lincoln. Mr. Goodwin’s point was to offer an uplifting contrast to the other figure in the bronze memorial: the slave kneeling beneath the 16th president’s outstretched hand setting him free. Earlier this week some activists set Friday evening as the date to pull down the statue at Lincoln Park. In the past 48 hours, the National Park Service has fenced off the statue and a nearby memorial to the educator Mary McLeod Bethune in the midst of the calls from some protesters to tear the Emancipation statue down, in line with recent efforts to topple monuments to Confederate generals, U.S. presidents and other figures. Mr. Goodwin said there is growing momentum for the replacement or alteration of the Capitol Hill landmark, one long resented by some black residents for its paternalistic style. On Friday, he said he wanted to see the statue moved through “peaceful, legislative measures,” adding that he had counseled Mr. Foster, 20 years old, of Maryland, against proceeding with plans to try to pull the statue down. Mr. Goodwin said he and Mr. Foster had agreed that an educational rally on Friday would be more productive. After Friday evening’s rally, Mr. Foster said he was trying to urge protesters to action and didn’t intend to vandalize the statue.
Shortly after 7 p.m., a few protesters scuffled with the political activist Jack Posobiec, who was filming speakers, forcing him from the park. Otherwise, the rally remained mostly peaceful.
Mr. Goodwin said he got the idea to start the petition to relocate the statue after seeing news reports from Boston, where local activists were calling for the removal of a replica of the statue. Also known as the Emancipation Group, the statue by Thomas Ball was dedicated in 1876 on the 11th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination, with an historic address by the orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
As a model for the figure of the kneeling slave, Ball used Archer Alexander, a slave who was the last man taken prisoner under the Fugitive Slave Act, according to the National Park Service, which owns the statue and maintains Lincoln Park.
Controversy about the statue’s iconography has reportedly existed since its unveiling. A Washington-area journalist who attended the event, John Wesley Cromwell, reported that Douglass himself offered an ad-lib critique of the statue during his address. “He 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,” Cromwell wrote.
The civil-rights activist Freeman H.M. Murray later criticized the posture of the Emancipation Monument figures as resembling religious figures. “Ball has come perilously near making Mr. Lincoln appear to be saying: ‘Go, and sin no more,’ or, ‘Thy sins be forgiven thee,’” Murray wrote in 1917. But he also called the statues “striking and appealing” figures, “which so many of my fellow-citizens and fellow-sufferers have highly regarded if not revered.”
The monument has been a touchstone for other black residents in Washington, some of whom joined Friday’s demonstration. They included Ms. Cole and other re-enactors, including one portraying Frederick Douglass. Also on hand Friday was Cedric Turner, who identified himself as a descendant of Mr. Alexander, the slave on whom the figure beside Lincoln was modeled. “I’m just as angry, I’m just as pissed off, but don’t destroy your own history because of that,” Mr. Turner yelled through a bullhorn at one point, as other demonstrators shouted over him, chanting, “Black lives matter.” “I’m the great-great-great-great grandson of this man that you are trying to lynch, to lynch with ropes.”
Nearby, Kristina Caine, of Norfolk, Va., argued that the statue was a burden on people like herself. “A lot of us are black, and we are still alive,” she said, “and we feel like the man in this statue.”
Mr. Goodwin said he wanted to see the memorial moved to the National Museum of African American History and Culture or the African American Civil War Museum, where it could be presented in a context that reflected the objection that it appeared to show black people as subservient. Alternatively, Mr. Goodwin said, the statue could be altered to include an additional figure—a black historical contemporary of Lincoln, standing at his side. Mr. Goodwin said Friday he believed momentum was growing either to move or alter the statue.
“I think that we’re well on our way and on the right path,” he said.