How The Lincoln Statue In Capitol Hill Became A Monument To Public Debate (WAMU 88.5)
On a calm, late-June evening in Lincoln Park, a handful of U.S. Park Police officers stand around the perimeter. Couples walk their dogs and groups of people on picnic blankets dot the park, where two bronze sculptures sit in the middle. One statue depicts President Abraham Lincoln holding the Emancipation Proclamation in one hand and extending the other over a kneeling, formerly enslaved person with shackles on his wrists, ostensibly torn from any chains they were once attached to.
Every few minutes, a runner stops mid-route, approaches the tall black fence that now surrounds the statue, and takes a photo.
Arnetta Lee, a Black woman in her 60s, walks up amid the joggers and squints to read the protest signs that adorn it. “I’ve been to this park before,” says Lee, a lifelong D.C. resident of Northeast. “But I said, ‘I need to go back and look at that again,’ because of the climate and everything else that’s going on.”
Looking at the Lincoln statue, known as the Emancipation Memorial or the Freedmen’s Monument, Lee ponders the barely-clothed Black man at Lincoln’s feet, who is looking not exactly heavenward, but perhaps somewhere far in the distance.
“Does that man look free? He does not look free,” Lee says. “A free man should be standing eye to eye. And if you’re the person that granted me my freedom, I should be happy. He still looks subservient … bowed down to someone who has positioned himself to have a lot of authority.”
Such conversations appear to have started last month with a petition seeking the monument’s removal, following calls in Boston to remove a replica of the statue. In D.C., thousands of people have signed on and a youth-led organization, the Freedom Neighborhood, has pledged that it will come down “by any means necessary.”
Over the past two weeks, protesters, neighbors, and law enforcement officers have crowded in the Capitol Hill park. A demonstration last Friday turned into something of a public debate — over a complex legacy, the importance of imagery, and the relevance of decisions made more than 150 years ago.
Carolivia Herron, a writer and classics professor at Howard University, told DCist/WAMU on Friday that the statue is where she took her first steps 73 years ago. She was among a group of Black historians who came to defend the statue. Some defenders — Black and white — argue that tearing the memorial down would erase a meaningful tribute to emancipation, one that was largely paid for by free African Americans. Some refer to it as the first Lincoln Memorial, predating all others, including the one on the National Mall.
Detractors say the image of the crouching Black man promotes stereotypes of inferiority and servitude; that it misrepresents Lincoln’s attitude and actions; or that it discredits the role African Americans played in breaking their own chains. D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton said she will introduce legislation to move the statue to a museum. Some have said they want it melted down and turned into a park bench. Others want it destroyed entirely.
For now, though, it still stands, albeit already in a changed form. Large cinder blocks keep a tall fence, erected by the National Park Service, in place. That, in turn, has become a wall for protest signs and photo-ops for passersby, much like the fence that surrounded Lafayette Square.
But while the protests around the White House have largely been a scene of unity—at least among protesters—the statue in Lincoln Park has sparked both thoughtful conversations and fierce arguments among strangers. In a way, it’s become a physical monument to public debate itself.
In Boston, officials have voted to remove their copy of the memorial, put up three years after the D.C. original. But unlike Park Square in Boston, Lincoln Park sits on federal land, meaning it’s up to the Department of the Interior to decide the memorial’s future. The controversy has gained national attention, as President Donald Trump called the protesters who want it torn down “rioters” and “bad people” and signed an executive order protecting monuments. Even rapper and actor Ice Cube has weighed in.
“I think the Lincoln statue, maybe more than any other statue in the country, symbolizes all the arguments in one place,” says Gregory Carr, chair of Howard University’s department of Afro-American studies, who says the monument belongs in a museum — if anywhere.
Many of those arguments were on clear view on Friday, June 27, when two events were simultaneously scheduled: a rally in opposition to the monument and a teach-in about the history of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. As the large crowd of protesters called for the statue’s removal, historians and reenactors—most of whom were of an older generation—expressed opposition. Both tense and respectful discussions ensued, as the park become a town square in the original sense.
But even among people who are in agreement that the statue should be removed, there was debate about how—through legal channels or by force?—and what comes next—destroy the statue, change it, or move it to a museum?
Glenn Foster, the 20-year-old Harvard student behind the Freedom Neighborhood and organizer of many of the recent protests, argues the answers are clear: get rid of it entirely, by any means necessary. He says the statue’s imagery and placement in a predominately white, affluent neighborhood sends a message that white people are superior.
“So many African Americans have felt uncomfortable about it. I think that it’s important that we talk about Lincoln in a way that doesn’t memorialize him as someone who was all-around perfect,” says Foster, “but rather as someone who really believed in doing this because of political advancement.”
But during Friday’s demonstration, a man with a “D.C. Black Tours” sign criticized the protesters: “A lot of people are out here talking about tearing something down that they don’t even know the history of.”
While the conductor-hat-wearing tour guide once told DCist that he intentionally shows up to events where “there’s a whole lot of media” to advertise his business, he does raise a point about this particular moment that’s worth exploring.
What can history tell us about this statue? As the Washington Post’s Joe Heim once wrote, “the statue had its opponents even before it was cast.”
During the Civil War, the land where the park sits was used as a hospital to treat wounded Union soldiers. In 1867, Congress named the park Lincoln Square, after the assassinated president. But efforts to raise funds for a Lincoln statue began well before then.
Upon hearing of Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, Charlotte Scott, a formerly enslaved woman in Virginia, donated the first $5 she made after being freed to erect a monument in his honor. Her action kicked off a fundraising campaign among freed African Americans, who raised $17,000, an unprecedented sum for formerly enslaved people. An additional $3,000 was secured by Congress for the base of the statue.
But as Kirk Savage writes in his book Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: “African Americans, mostly soldiers, contributed the cash, while the white sponsors collected the money and decided how to spend it. There was never any possibility that the donors themselves might influence the design; the sponsors made clear that it was ‘friends of the freedmen’ who would ‘determine character of the monument.’”
Indeed, a white-run war-relief agency in St. Louis, the Western Sanitary Commission, managed the funds and invited freedmen to donate money to help “build a monument to good Massa Lincoln.”
The committee ultimately selected a design by Thomas Ball, a Massachusetts-born sculptor who lived in Italy.
Soyica Colbert, a Georgetown University professor in African American studies and performing arts, says the statue fits in with iconography of the abolitionist period; specifically, a widely circulated image found on medallions worn by British and American abolitionists. It depicted a kneeling enslaved man pleading: “Am I Not A Man And A Brother?”
“So the sculptor, I’m sure, may have seen this image before, or may have been familiar with it, and it may have influenced the design of the statue,” Colbert says. She, too, says the statue would be most effective in a museum where more context could be added.
“We also know that Black people were very actively a part of the abolitionist projects,” she adds. “Freeing the slaves took an effort by the people putting pressure on a president who wanted to maintain the union. And so whether this image accurately portrays that is definitely questionable.”
Also complicating the debate: A more elaborate proposal by sculptor Harriet Hosmer (herself, described as a queer, boundary-pushing artist of the 19th century) would have included Lincoln alongside other figures, including a Black Union soldier standing tall and carrying a rifle. “Some scholars and historians believe that would have been too revolutionary, and perhaps too expensive,” historian and author C.R. Gibbs recently told the Post. “But it was an opportunity missed.”
The question of the kneeling man’s agency isn’t a new one. Ironically, the Rev. William Greenleaf Eliot (founder of Washington University and T.S. Eliot’s grandfather), who led the commission, considered the man depicted in the Ball’s original design to be too passive and unrealistic, not engaged enough in his own liberation. So, Ball modeled the kneeling man after Archer Alexander, the last person captured under the Fugitive Slave Act in Missouri (who in reality, would have never met Lincoln.) And, his right arm was extended outward to show that he was rising, newly emancipated.
The updated version of Ball’s design was cast in Germany before being shipped to Washington in 1876. A parade, held on the 11th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination, kicked off the grand unveiling ceremony in Lincoln Park.
Frederick Douglass, who lived in D.C. at the time, gave a resounding keynote address in front of some 25,000 attendees, including the first Howard University law school dean, John Mercer Langston; members of Congress; Supreme Court justices; and President Ulysses S. Grant.
“First things are always interesting,” Douglass said of the statue, “and this is one of our first things.”
His oration speaks volumes about the conflicting sentiments around Lincoln. Douglass didn’t spare any criticism, citing Lincoln’s slow pace in ending slavery and his general views toward Black people.
“Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man,” Douglass said. “He was preeminently the white man’s president, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men. He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country.” Lincoln was no abolitionist, by Douglass’ telling.
The president famously said of African Americans: “What next? Free them, and make them politically and socially our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this.” And in 1862, when he called a delegation of five freed Black men to the White House, he blamed the Civil War on slavery and “the colored race as a basis,” further explaining that Congress had secured the funds to ship freed Black people to another country.
“You are the children of Abraham Lincoln,” Douglass said of white Americans during his speech. “We are at best only his stepchildren; children by adoption, children by forces of circumstances and necessity.”
Two years passed between Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation taking effect and Juneteenth — June 19, 1865 — when Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas, and announced that the slaves there were free. “If Lincoln freed the slaves, what happened in those two years?” asks Colbert, of Georgetown University.
But in his 32-minute address, Douglass also praised Lincoln, contrasting the “white man’s president” with the Lincoln who “delivered us from a bondage, according to Jefferson, one hour of which was worse than ages of the oppression your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose.”
“Though he loved Caesar less than Rome,” Douglass continued, “though the union was more to him than our freedom or our future, under his wise and beneficent rule we saw ourselves gradually lifted from the depths of slavery to the heights of liberty and manhood.” He later adds, “Under his rule we saw the internal slave-trade, which so long disgraced the nation, abolished, and slavery abolished in the District of Columbia.”
Howard professor Gregory Carr says that without Douglass’ speech, the Emancipation Memorial loses its meaning.
“As far as I’m concerned, that day in April when [Frederick] Douglass gave that speech is more important than Lincoln’s second inaugural,” Carr says. “It is, in some ways, the most important speech about the nature of the United States of America given during that period.”
After the speech, according to a Smithsonian document from the time, Grant, without a word, advanced to the front of the stand, pulled the cord, and unveiled the statue to roarous applause.
One of the signs activists taped to the fence around the statue reads, “But didn’t Lincoln free Black people? Yes. We respect Lincoln & his sacrifice. But we do not respect the imagery of his hand over a freed slave…” Another reads, “This is what white saviorism looks like … @Lincoln.”
Foster says he’s received numerous threats and hate messages since founding the activist group that put the signs up and organized the recent protests at the park. But, he says, “If you’re not getting hate, you’re not doing the job right.”
Still, others would have protesters like Foster direct their efforts elsewhere.
“For those contemplating the elimination of this monument,” writes Yale historian and Douglass biographer David Blight for the Post, “please consider the people who created it and what it meant for their lives in a century not our own. We ought not try to purify their past and present for our needs.”
Blight writes that instead of tearing down the memorial, its critics should instead commission a statue of Douglass delivering his speech, arguing that “so much new learning can take place by the presence of both past and present.”
“Rather than take down this monument to Lincoln and emancipation,” Blight continues, “create a commission that will engage new artists to represent the story of black freedom from one generation to the next. Let today’s imaginations take flight.”
Across from the Lincoln statue sits a bronze memorial dedicated to civil rights activist and prominent Black educator Mary McLeod Bethune. It’s known as the only statue in D.C. that specifically honors a Black woman. When the Bethune statue went up in 1974, the Lincoln statue — which faced the U.S. Capitol — was turned to face her. (Now, the National Park Service has erected a fence around her statue as well.)
“In some ways, you might make the argument that the Lincoln statue began to come down in 1974 when they turned it toward Mary Bethune,” says Carr.
Marcus Goodwin, who started the removal petition, says it should be taken down legally and placed in a museum, “where historical artifacts go.” Goodwin, who grew up in D.C.’s Columbia Heights and Congress Heights neighborhoods, would like to see more statues of Black women in D.C. (Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie reintroduced a bill last year to diversify statues in all eight wards.)
“When we go to rash decisions and we tear down Confederate statues, it may be a permanent solution if we can dispose of it; but that’s disposing of history,” Goodwin says. “We see [the tearing down of] Albert Pike’s statue in Judiciary Square — the president is emboldened further to put that thing back up.”
After years of activists and local lawmakers calling for Confederate General Albert Pike’s statue near the D.C. Police headquarters to be removed, protesters toppled it on their own last month. But Trump reportedly requested that NPS reinstate the statue, appealing to his base and adding fuel to a national debate over Confederate and racist monuments. Just yesterday, the Department of Homeland Security announced the creation of a “task force” to protect American memorials and statues.
Goodwin says tearing the Pike statue down was simply a short-term fix to a long-term issue. “Now we have to charge forward ensuring that people know and understand the full truth of injustice in this country, and that we have a long-term, sustainable, inclusive solution where everybody can agree,” he says.
More protests are planned at the park later this week, including one by the organizers of Moechella, the massive go-go party that shut down the corner of 14th and U Street last year.
On Tuesday evening, though, things were quiet. A community organizer walked around asking for signatures on a petition to end police violence. Arnetta Lee, the 63-year-old Black woman who returned to see the monument for the first time in years, noted the effects of gentrification across the city. Capitol Hill and its surrounding neighborhoods have been some of the hardest hit by gentrification in D.C.
“When I look at this park, and I look at the community, and when I walked up here, I just started looking around because I’m like, ‘Who out here looks like me?’” Lee said.
Nearby, Dan McMahon, a white man in his 20s walked up to the fence around the Emancipation Memorial and took it in for the first time. He said he learned about the debate surrounding the statue from a podcast.
“What’s really great about coming here is there’s a lot of people that have come and put up signs that explain the rationale,” he said. “This isn’t just a statue of Lincoln. It’s most notably a statue of a former slave bowing down to Lincoln.”
McMahon added that there needs to be a broader, more nuanced conversation about statues like this one. He noticed the police idling nearby and lowered his voice.
“I haven’t seen this before,” he said, referencing the fencing and police presence around the park. “A statue really tells you what a society values. I think that I’m witnessing more protection of this statute than we’re witnessing protections of people of color in our cities. And that says a lot about where our values are.”
As Douglass said himself, “first things are always interesting.”
Article by Elliot C. Williams.