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‘This sculpture has got to go’: Boston Art Commission hears public input on the future of Lincoln statue

The bronze 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. Nearly 150 years after its debut here, the statue has become a local flashpoint in the nation’s latest reckoning with public art portraying figures from the Civil War and its aftermath.
The bronze 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. Nearly 150 years after its debut here, the statue has become a local flashpoint in the nation’s latest reckoning with public art portraying figures from the Civil War and its aftermath.Steven Senne/Associated Press

Residents, scholars, and artists told the Boston Art Commission Thursday evening that a controversial statue of Abraham Lincoln standing next to a barely clothed freed slave should be removed from its location in Park Square.

“This sculpture has got to go,” Darrell Ann Gane-McCalla, a sculptor and art teacher, said at the virtual public hearing. “It’s degrading, it’s ahistorical.”

The bronze 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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The president’s arm is outstretched, while a Black man, down on one knee, displays broken shackles on his wrist and ankle.

But nearly 150 years after its debut here, the statue has become a local flashpoint in the nation’s latest reckoning with public art portraying figures from the Civil War and its aftermath.

The commission, which advocates for public art in Boston’s civic spaces, is now soliciting public input about the future of the statue.

In addition to Thursday’s hearing, the commission also has a survey that asks the public about what should happen to the piece. Options include adding more educational information at the current site, commissioning a new work of art to replace it, and formally removing it from the city’s collection.

Edmund Barry Gaither, director and curator of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, told the commission Thursday that the production and content of the statue are profoundly tainted by paternalism, which “is a benevolent form of white supremacy in the 19th century.”

“The white mask of benevolence denied Black people agency, voice, and self-ownership and required of them cowering and subservience,” he said.

Greg Galer, executive director of the Boston Preservation Alliance, doesn’t believe the sculpture should be destroyed “for its contemporary history has much to teach us.” But he did favor moving the statue somewhere it could be more fully contextualized. There should be a way to recognize Abraham Lincoln and emancipation without “demoralizing our fellow Bostonians,” he said.

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"Hopefully we can come to a time and look at it and shake our heads and think that it's strange that there was a time when this was OK," he said. "That, we think, should be our goal."

Kari Turner said she has to avert her eyes every time she passes by.

“This image perpetuates that white people are superior to Black people,” she said.

Another speaker called it “a complete and utter disgrace.”

Isaiah Plovnick suggested the work belongs in Somerville’s Museum of Bad Art, and said it evokes the wrong impression.

“That looks like Abraham Lincoln has a slave,” he said.

The commission has another meeting where the public can offer input regarding the Emancipation Group next Tuesday.

That work is not the only Boston statue that is the subject of debate.

The often-vandalized statue of Christopher Columbus in Boston’s North End, found decapitated again recently, might be removed permanently as city officials and residents discuss whether the controversial explorer’s likeness should occupy a prominent position on the waterfront.

Meghan E. Irons and John R. Ellement of Globe staff contributed to this report.






Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.