Thursday, April 28, 2016

Stumbling on Freedom's Memorial

David and I did a relatively quick mid-day run yesterday. We started near the US Capital and the plan was to run North-East and swing by the Memorial to Japanese American Patriotism in World War II. Instead, we managed to run nearly due East and ended up at Lincoln Park in front of the remarkable Emancipation Memorial. It was all quiet by accident, but a happy accident at that.

The fact that it's Passover, the celebration of when Jews transitioned from slavery to freedom, was just another reason that the visit was so meaningful.

The Memorial itself is quite dramatic, with a stern looking Lincoln and an unshackled slave kneeling before him. The slave was apparently modeled after Archer Alexander, the last person captured under the Fugitive Slave Act. The inscription on the front of the memorial reads:

This monument was erected by the Western Sanitary Commission of Saint Louis Mo: With funds contributed solely by emancipated citizens of the United States declared free by his proclamation January 1st A.D. 1863. The first contribution of five dollars was made by Charlotte Scott. A freedwoman of Virginia being her first earnings in freedom and consecrated by her suggestion and request on the day she heard of President Lincoln's death to build a monument to his memory

You can read about Charlotte Scott here, and how she gave her entire savings of $5.00 to start the effort to build a memorial to Lincoln. The memorial was unveiled on April 14th, 1876 and the keynote address was given by Frederick Douglas. You can read his remarks here. He doesn't exactly pull punches when criticizing Lincoln:

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. In all his education and feeling he was an American of the Americans. He came into the Presidential chair upon one principle alone, namely, opposition to the extension of slavery. His arguments in furtherance of this policy had their motive and mainspring in his patriotic devotion to the interests of his own race. To protect, defend, and perpetuate slavery in the states where it existed Abraham Lincoln was not less ready than any other President to draw the sword of the nation. He was ready to execute all the supposed guarantees of the United States Constitution in favor of the slave system anywhere inside the slave states. He was willing to pursue, recapture, and send back the fugitive slave to his master, and to suppress a slave rising for liberty, though his guilty master were already in arms against the Government.

But ultimately, he gives Lincoln credit for his actions:

Though he loved Caesar less than Rome, 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; under his wise and beneficent rule, and by measures approved and vigorously pressed by him, we saw that the handwriting of ages, in the form of prejudice and proscription, was rapidly fading away from the face of our whole country; under his rule, and in due time, about as soon after all as the country could tolerate the strange spectacle, we saw our brave sons and brothers laying off the rags of bondage, and being clothed all over in the blue uniforms of the soldiers of the United States; under his rule we saw two hundred thousand of our dark and dusky people responding to the call of Abraham Lincoln, and with muskets on their shoulders, and eagles on their buttons, timing their high footsteps to liberty and union under the national flag; under his rule we saw the independence of the black republic of Haiti, the special object of slave-holding aversion and horror, fully recognized, and her minister, a colored gentleman, duly received here in the city of Washington; under his rule we saw the internal slave-trade, which so long disgraced the nation, abolished, and slavery abolished in the District of Columbia; under his rule we saw for the first time the law enforced against the foreign slave trade, and the first slave-trader hanged like any other pirate or murderer; under his rule, assisted by the greatest captain of our age, and his inspiration, we saw the Confederate States, based upon the idea that our race must be slaves, and slaves forever, battered to pieces and scattered to the four winds; under his rule, and in the fullness of time, we saw Abraham Lincoln, after giving the slave-holders three months’ grace in which to save their hateful slave system, penning the immortal paper, which, though special in its language, was general in its principles and effect, making slavery forever impossible in the United States. Though we waited long, we saw all this and more.

It's an amazing speech, and it shows how contradictions should be recognized and understood. African-Americans honored Lincoln with this moment knowing full well his flaws, but loving him none the less. It stands in contrast to the politics of today, where each side is quick to promote its talking points with little tolerance for logic and reason.

That was back in 1876. 140 years later, the Monument still stands, but not without controversy:

Though former slaves paid for the memorial, its design was overseen by an all-white committee. Its sculptor, Thomas Ball, also was white.

Some critics felt the statue was paternalistic, that it ignored the active role blacks played in ending slavery. An alternate proposal for the memorial depicted a statue of Lincoln as well as statues of black Union soldiers wearing uniforms and bearing rifles. That option was considered too expensive.

And so we have Lincoln and the kneeling slave, a nation’s narrative cast in bronze: Lincoln the freer of the black man, the savior of a race that couldn’t save itself.

Ouch, right? And a more than fair point. Fredrick Douglas' remarks may show the nuanced nature of the Memorial, but on the surface, that nuance is gone.

There are a lot of memorials in DC, but this one is absolutely worth taking your time to track down.

Here's a few more photos from our run:

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