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Lincoln emancipation statue triggers debate on how the Black experience should be commemorated

Even descendants of the former slave depicted in the memorial are split over whether it should remain in Boston.

While some activists are fighting to have Boston's Emancipation Memorial torn down, others are arguing against, saying the art, however challenging, is worth preserving.
While some activists are fighting to have Boston's Emancipation Memorial torn down, others are arguing against, saying the art, however challenging, is worth preserving.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

The statue in Boston’s Park Square looks like any other public monument you might walk right by, until you pause to see: There, in bronze, is Abraham Lincoln standing next to a barely clothed Black man. The president’s arm is outstretched, while the other man, down on one knee, displays broken shackles on his wrist and ankle.

The statue, a replica of one in Washington, D.C., is called the Emancipation Memorial or Emancipation Group, and was donated to the city in 1879 to celebrate Lincoln’s emancipation of the slaves. An inscription reads: “A race set free and the country at peace. Lincoln rests from his labors.”

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But nearly 150 years after its debut here, the statue has become a flashpoint in the nation’s latest reckoning with public art portraying figures from the Civil War and its aftermath. What was intended as a depiction of liberation can look demeaning to 21st-century eyes: a submissive Black man bending at the feet of the president. Yet even as activists in Boston and Washington have urged the statues be torn down or repurposed, some argue against, saying the art, however challenging, is worth preserving.

It has become a familiar sort of cultural dispute. The surprise this time comes from one major source of that contrary view: some descendants of the slave, a celebrated escapee from bondage named Archer Alexander, who was used as a model for the kneeling figure.

“He was breaking chains; he was in the process of standing,‘' said Keith Winstead, a distant relative of Alexander who believes the monument is a tribute to a critical period in Black history and to an American hero who risked his life to help Union soldiers during the Civil War.

“He was not submissive. If anything it was the complete opposite.”

His is hardly the final word in the extended family about Alexander, who was a distant ancestor also of boxer Muhammad Ali.

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Maryum Ali, the eldest of the boxing legend’s nine children who lives in Los Angeles, said she has seen the DC statue and finds it degrading and offensive — and she wants it taken down.

“Lincoln freed the slaves, but why isn’t that man standing up next to Lincoln?” said Ali, a direct descendant of Archer Alexander. “I’m sure that my great-great-great-great grandfather would not want to be viewed as bowing down to anyone — Lincoln or anybody else.”

At a time when the country is transfixed by protests demanding racial justice, the debate has exposed deep disagreements among historians — as among Alexander’s descendants. And it has raised a fundamental question: Who gets to decide how Black history is remembered and commemorated?

In the case of the Emancipation Memorial, the history is as fraught as the present: While funding for the original artwork came from Black freedmen and women, an all-white committee was apparently responsible for the design.

This “reveals a lot of the ways racism … can play out in public art and design choices — who actually has the power and is making the money and design decisions?” said Kara Elliott-Ortega, the city’s chief of arts and culture. “That’s a piece of this.”

The story of Archer Alexander is a remarkable one; he wasn’t emancipated by Lincoln, as the statue suggests, but made his own way to freedom. He is said to have been 57 and living in Missouri when he overheard his owner, Richard Pitman, saying that Confederate sympathizers had sabotaged a nearby railroad bridge, which had served as a vital link to the Union Army. Alexander raced 5 miles in the dark of night to warn the Union troops about what he had heard.

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He couldn’t return to Pitman or his family, so he fled to St. Louis, where he was taken in by William Greenleaf Eliot, a white Unitarian minister who was born and raised near Boston.

Eliot, whose grandson was the poet T.S. Eliot, also founded Washington University and eventually chronicled Alexander’s journey in the only book written about him.

The idea for a DC memorial honoring Lincoln came in 1865, immediately after the president was assassinated. After hearing of his death, Charlotte Scott of Virginia donated $5, the first money she had earned as a free Black woman, for a memorial “to the best friend the colored people ever had,” according to Dorris Keeven-Franke, a historian, author, and genealogist from Missouri who is writing a book on Alexander.

Other donations for the more than $16,000 for the memorial came from Black Union soldiers and veterans, and members of the Western Sanitary Commission, of which Eliot was leader, in St. Louis. The commission helped care for newly freedmen and refugees during the war. The memorial was also the first of its kind to be funded solely by freedmen and Alexander was the first Black American to be placed on a statue, albeit anonymously, in Washington, D.C., historians say.

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The artist was Thomas Ball, a white Boston native working in Italy.

The donations were an enormous sum coming from a newly emancipated people, wrote Raul Fernandez, a lecturer and associate dean at Boston University who has researched the statue extensively.

“Predictably ... none of these donors had a say in the monument’s design,‘' he wrote.

Fernandez has characterized the monument as a tribute to white supremacy. And others have posited that the statue presents Lincoln as a paternalistic white savior and obscures his complex history, including that while he felt slavery was unjust, Lincoln also contemplated sending slaves to Africa, “to their own native land.”

But this view of the statue is not universal.

Cedric Turner, another descendant of Alexander from Harlem, said taking down the memorial would be akin to wiping out the story of freed slaves who donated money for the statue, and of Alexander himself, who helped his country during the Civil War.

“We go too far when we want to get rid of the vestiges of our past, without doing the research, and without knowing exactly what went on and why we have this statue,” said Turner, who is Ali’s first cousin. “If it continues, they might simply want to wipe out slavery completely, which is crazy because you must know where you came from, in order to know where you’re going.”

Fernandez, the BU dean, is bothered most by the interaction between Lincoln and Archer. “The biggest issue I have is, in this artist’s depiction of the emancipation, the figure below [Alexander] really serves as a prop to highlight the stature of Abraham Lincoln,” he said in an interview.

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The debate is not new. Even when the statue was first unveiled, Frederick Douglass, an abolitionist and former slave, questioned the depiction of the kneeling freedman. No matter how far Blacks had come, he said, they were still perceived as slaves.

Douglass nonetheless delivered the keynote speech at the statue’s unveiling in DC on April 14, 1876, calling the memorial a “highly interesting object.”

And as if peeking into the future, he remarked: “Wise and thoughtful men of our race, who shall come after us, and study the lesson of our history in the United States ... will make a note of this occasion,” he said. “They will think of it and speak of it with a sense of manly pride and complacency.”

But generations later, Tory Bullock, a millennial actor and activist, cringed each time he passed the Boston replica of the memorial. Bullock launched a petition drive recently to remove the statue. And Boston is listening.

“I feel like I’ve learned so much about this statue — how it was funded, where it came from, who created it,” Bullock said. “But it doesn’t change the fact for me that it no longer belongs in a public setting.”

The city plans to conduct a survey and hold a pair of public meetings, including one on June 30, to get reactions, thoughts, and concerns about the statue, said Eliott-Ortega, the city’s arts chief.

Of the 129 city-owned memorials, 15 are permanent memorials with Black subjects, seven of which are by Black artists, she said. Three memorials with Black subjects and Black artists are in development. They will pay tribute to Frederick Douglass, Justice Edward O. Gourdin — the first Black American to be appointed a Superior Court judge in New England — and Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King.

Winstead, meanwhile, has talked with other champions of the monument about launching their own petition to preserve the original in DC and the replica in Boston. (The National Park Service said that it would take an act of Congress to alter, remove, or relocate the statue.)

“You can’t change history, and that is what they are trying to do,” Winstead said. “They are trying to do it, not knowing what Archer did. ... He was a hero. He saved a lot of lives and he risked his own life.”


Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.