The Measure of a Monument
Stand in thy place and testify
To coming ages long,
That truth is stronger than a lie,
And righteousness than wrong.
Those words close the seven-stanza poem that John G. Whittier wrote for the December 6, 1879, dedication ceremony of the “Bronze Group Commemorating Emancipation” that stands in Boston’s Park Square. It is now 141 years later and many do not see this monument as bearing witness to the strength of truth and righteousness. Indeed, it has had numerous critics since the beginning of “the coming ages long” of its existence. With the unanimous vote of the eight-member Boston Art Commission earlier this month, The Emancipation Group, as it is commonly called, is slated for removal.
The Emancipation Group is one of many monuments throughout the United States under scrutiny for their skewed conceptualizations of how we remember slavery, the Civil War, and our narration of the historical through line that informs American society today. A study by the Southern Poverty Law Center identifies more than 1,700 Confederate monuments, place names, and other symbols across the United States in public spaces; thousands of other markers and tributes exist at battlefields and in museums, cemeteries, and other places history-related places. Most of the contested monuments continue to glorify the racism of the antebellum South and served as symbols to reinforce the terrorism whites devised to institute de facto slavery after the derailing of the Reconstruction era in 1877. The Emancipation Group, however, doesn’t fit into the genre of “the Lost Cause of the Confederacy” fiction advanced through public art. The sculptor’s intent was to honor the liberation of America’s enslaved black population and in particular, the man who granted it, President Abraham Lincoln. Yet, the well-intentioned tableau perpetuates a perverted mythology, depicting an ever-supplicant African American in the presence of a deified Lincoln. The Emancipation Group stands as a peculiar reminder of the institution that it hails abolishing.
The Park Square monument is a copy of the Freedmen’s Memorial to Abraham Lincoln (Emancipation Monument) unveiled in Washington, D.C., in 1876. The sculptor, Charlestown, Massachusetts-born Thomas Ball (1819-1911), was an expatriate living in Florence, Italy. A Lincoln admirer, he had created a similar though smaller tribute group shortly after the president was assassinated.
It was Moses Kimball (1809-1895) who donated The Emancipation Group to the city of Boston. Kimball was a well-known citizen, having established himself as a public figure as a newspaperman, public speaker, and businessman; a Whig politician who served as a state representative, state senator, and ran for mayor; and a philanthropist and temperance advocate. Kimball commissioned Ball to duplicate the Freedmen’s Memorial as a present from him to Boston.
Kimball bestowed his gift with the condition that the city “make provision for its care and protection, and place it where the people ‘most do congregate,’ that they may be constantly reminded of the great event it commemorates,” Mayor Frederick O. Prince told the crowd at the dedication ceremony, “for it is his desire, by this memorial bronze, not only to adorn the city and gratify our sense of the beautiful, but to elevate and instruct the popular mind by its solemn lessons of justice, philanthropy, and patriotism.”
Prince continued his dedicatory remarks by stating: “National monuments are epic lessons to future generations. They instruct, admonish, delight, and inspire. That which we dedicate to-day speaks of the most important act in our annals, and commemorates one of the great eras of the Republic, — the emancipation of four millions of slaves!” Despite condemning slavery as an indefensible system labor and extolling the North for having extended the tenets of the Declaration of Independence to black people long before the South—which it fully did not—Prince offered comparatively fewer words expressing interest in African Americans as people, and most of those he packaged in paternalism. He reminded the audience that the formerly enslaved, by law, possessed the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—just like white people. He noted that since their manumission, the formerly enslaved “have shown themselves generally disposed to be orderly and well behaved.” The South needed their labor in order to prosper, and there they should remain, since white workers could not adequately fill their places. They were “wards of the nation” who required training to be good citizens, especially when it came to exercising the right to vote. “Policy, then, as well as justice, demands the good treatment of the freedmen, the recognition of their rights, and the protection of their interests.” The nation’s responsibility was to “treat them with a guardian’s care, and see to it that they are trained and educated like other human beings, and taught to be honest, truthful, virtuous, and God-fearing.”
Because of inclement weather, city officials held The Emancipation Group dedication in Faneuil Hall instead of outside at Park Square.Faneuil Hall was a “fitting and appropriate” venue for the ceremony, the mayor told the crowd, because the “associations of this venerable and historic place accord with the solemn character of the occasion. The walls which heard those denunciations of tyranny that led to the immortal declaration— ‘All men are created free,’—should echo our thanksgiving that all men throughout our broad domain—of every race and color—are at last free, and witness the consecration of the sculpture which commemorates the event.”
Ironically, in 2017 a grassroots organization launched an effort to rename Faneuil Hall because its donor and namesake, Peter Faneuil, made a substantial portion of his wealth from the African slave trade and owned enslaved people. The New Democracy Coalition is challenging as well as the narrative of Faneuil Hall as the “Cradle of Liberty” where patriots aroused the fervor of colonists to declare independence from Britain. The coalition is pressing for the name change as well as historical accuracy in the interpretation of this popular tourist spot in an effort to eradicate its white supremacy and systemic racism symbolism. Not far from the vaunted meeting place, enslaved people were bought and sold.
Calls to remove The Emancipation Group are not new; they have been expressed for decades. The Boston Arts Commission’s 2018 study of the city’s commemorative landscape reported that municipal leaders had long been unwilling to acknowledge The Emancipation Group as a monument to racial inequity and refused to consider removing it. Instead, they defended the presence of the statue as a valuable reminder of history. Requests to add information to expand the interpretation and context were ignored. However, the commission recently added temporary interpretative signs.
The original monument erected in Washington was commissioned by the Western Sanitary Commission, a St. Louis, Missouri-based Civil War relief agency run by abolitionists of varying degrees. It was paid for by black donors, seeded in 1865 by the $5 contribution that Charlotte Scott had given to her former owner for the purpose of erecting a monument to Lincoln by African Americans. The commission spread the word about the project and African Americans gave money, but did not include the donors in the planning and design process.
The project was completed eleven years after Scott made her $5 donation and dedicated on April 14, 1876. Among the speakers invited to ceremony was Frederick Douglass. The rights activist and national abolitionist leader seized the opportunity to tell both sides of the emancipation back story, alternately praising Lincoln for ending slavery and censuring the president’s complicity in maintaining systemic racism. Lincoln was, Douglass said, “pre-eminently 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 closing his speech, Douglass remarked, “In doing honor to the memory of our friend and liberator we have been doing highest honor to ourselves and those who come after us.” Though he did not share this sentiment with the audience, Douglass was overheard at the ceremony saying of the sculptor’s depiction of the emancipated black man that “a more manly attitude would have been indicative of freedom.”
Some critics of removing The Emancipation Group cite the fact that the original monument was paid for by the newly emancipated thus it was, and should continue to be, acceptable and praiseworthy. Defenders of allowing them to stand in place argue that removing statues erases history. The argument is specious, however, given that so many of these objectionable monuments distort history when they don’t erase it. The Emancipation Group was one of a number of works that Freeman H. M. Murray studied for his 1916 monograph, Emancipation and the Freed in American Sculpture: A Study in Interpretation. The noted intellectual, journalist, and civil rights activist criticized the demeanor given to “the kneeling—or is it crouching?—figure” that in no way indicates that he has any knowledge of the dignity and power of his new position, of his own agency.
Murray may have anticipated future controversies surrounding statues and monuments that depict emancipation and African Americans when he advised how to assess them: “When we look at a work of art, especially when ‘we’ look at one in which Black Folk appear—or do not appear when they should, —we should ask: What does it mean? What does it suggest? What impression is it likely to make on those who view it? What will be the effect on present-day problems, of its obvious and also of its insidious teachings? In short, we should endeavor to ‘intrepret’ it; and try to interpret it from our own peculiar viewpoint.”
A Demonstration of “Emancipation”
There are smaller installations of Thomas Ball’s Lincoln memorial sculpture, which he referred to in his autobiography as “a small group of Abraham Lincoln and a liberated slave.” The inscription on the bases of these models reads, “And upon this act—I invoke the considerate judgement [sic] of mankind and the gracious favour of Almighty God.” The locations of these are as follows:
- Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. Freedom’s Memorial, 1875, marble. Gift of Reverend Dr. William Greenleaf Eliot, founder of the university and a leader of the Western Sanitary Commission. Not on view.
- Houghton Library, Harvard University, Abraham Lincoln with figure of liberty unshackled, c. 1876, bronze. Bequest of William Whiting Nolen, 1924. Part of the Boston’s Crusade Against Slavery (Addenda) exhibition.
- City Hall, Methuen, Massachusetts. Date unknown, white Italian marble. Gift of Edward Francis Searles, 1904. An interior and architectural designer, Searles (1841-1920) was a major figure in Methuen and collaborated on building several grand structures in New England. In 1904, Searles built the town’s high school, which now serves as city hall. Searles purchased the demonstration model of the emancipation monument for the school from Thomas Ball, having earlier commissioned the sculptor to create a statue of George Washington. On view.