For more than 100 years, the statue of Abraham Lincoln has stood in Park Square in tribute to the president known as the “Great Emancipator.” Lincoln towers over a half-clothed Black slave who is down on one knee, one of the president’s hands extended over the man who has broken shackles on his wrists. On the statue’s pedestal is the inscription: “A race set free and the country at peace. Lincoln rests from his labors.”
As a young Black man growing up in Dorchester, Tory Bullock would recoil every time he walked past the statue. He didn’t see a liberator. He saw a white man standing over a less powerful Black human.
As the nation rises up in protests and as relics of America’s racist past fall, Bullock and others are calling for a reckoning about once celebrated monuments and their painful messages.
In a video posted Thursday on his Facebook page, Bullock, a millennial writer, actor, and social media influencer, appealed to Mayor Martin J. Walsh to remove the memorial. He launched a petition drive toward that goal, urging protesters to never stop pushing for change.
“Dear Boston. This statue needs to go,” wrote Bullock, signing it: “Your Black Friend.”
If whites are joining marches and lending support to their Black friends, he reasoned, they could also use that same energy to civically see if Boston means what it proclaims about racial justice.
The video shows Bullock in his car near the memorial. He asks his Black viewers how they feel about seeing an image “of a Black dude on his knees.”
“Does that make you feel powerful,” he asks. “Does that make you feel respected, does that make you feel good?”
Walsh, who on Friday declared racism a public health crisis, is in favor of removing the statue, his office said, and is willing to engage in a dialogue about its future in Boston. The mayor is interested in potentially recommissioning the statue into one that recognizes equality, his office said, adding that since the statue is a memorial that falls under the Arts Commission, the administration is actively looking into what those processes would entail.
The statue — which is a replica of the Emancipation Memorial (or Freedman’s Memorial) in Washington, D.C. — was donated to Boston in 1879 by a man named Moses Kimball, according to City Council documents from that period in the city’s archives.
Kimball’s initial letter dated May 30, 1879, about the gift said the central figure of the bronze copy of Emancipation is “a representation of the late President Lincoln.”
“I have the honor to present the same to the city of Boston, conditioned that I may place it upon the triangular lot at the junction of Columbus avenue, Park square and Pleasant street,” Kimball wrote, “and that the city will cause the area to be suitably enclosed and annually cultivated with flowering plants and shrubs.”
Tourists have stopped by to snap pictures of the memorial. Office workers, schoolchildren, and joggers pass it while going about their day, giving it little notice.
But the image has tormented Bullock and his Black friends, who had, for the most part, harbored their dismay in silence.
“All I remember is what I felt, and what I felt was ‘Wow, that’s a Black dude with a white dude standing over him like he’s a coffee table,” said Bullock. “And he just made me feel like something’s wrong.”
Bullock, who lives in Mission Hill, is no stranger to controversial topics. His videos — passionate, raw, and powerful — take on gentrification, racism, and police brutality. Some have gone viral, including one he did after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., that sparked mass protests six years ago.
He spent much of the week scrolling through his news feed and reading about controversial statues tumbling down or targeted for removal, including Confederate monuments. Those structures have reemerged as a national flashpoint since George Floyd died as a white Minneapolis officer pressed a knee on his neck for almost nine minutes.
Then Bullock read this past week about the beheading of a Christopher Columbus statue in the North End and its removal Thursday by a city crew.
As Bullock read about the Columbus statue’s removal, he drove to the Lincoln monument site and hit the record button.
He’s heard from some people who said the slave in the statue depicts a real man who went on to have an incredible life as a free man. But Bullock countered that the memorial failed to show any of the positive aspects of the man’s journey into freedom.
“If he’s free [then] why is he still on his knees?” Bullock wrote on the online petition. “No kid should have to ask themselves that question anymore. If you feel the same then sign the petition!”
The video received more than 11,000 views as of Friday afternoon, Bullock said, and more than 3,000 people have signed the petition, whose initial goal was 1,000.