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Op-Ed: Whither Charlotte Scott’s Tribute To Emancipation

Editor’s Note: The views expressed are solely those of the writer, John Parker; Former MPP and Toronto City Councilor.

BY JOHN PARKER

Upon hearing that President Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated, a woman who had been freed by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation proposed that a memorial statue be erected in his memory. She established a fund for the purpose and made the first contribution: five dollars.

The project was picked up by the quaintly named Western Sanitary Commission, a philanthropic agency that had been established in St. Louis during the Civil War. Its original purpose was to provide hospital services for sick and wounded soldiers, but over time it also came to provide shelter for the homeless and dispossessed and schools for their children. It largely served those who had been freed or who otherwise had escaped from slavery.

As the country’s centennial year approached a design was chosen and a statue was commissioned. It features Abraham Lincoln standing with the Emancipation Proclamation in his right hand. In front of Lincoln is the figure of a man in a crouched position, looking up, rising, and breaking free from chains of bondage. The model for the casting was Archer Alexander, a man who had escaped from slavery but who was on the verge of being returned to his previous condition when the Emancipation Proclamation secured his freedom in 1863.

The statue was dedicated at a ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington in April 1867. President Ulysses S. Grant and members of the Supreme Court were present on the occasion. Frederick Douglass – himself a former slave – delivered the keynote address.

Douglass had been free since 1838. He is known to history as one of the foremost American abolitionists but in truth he was outspoken and courageous in support of a broad spectrum of social reforms, including the rights of women (in 1848 he wrote “In respect to political rights, we hold woman to be justly entitled to all we claim for man.” In 1866 he was one of the founders of the American Equal Rights Association in support of universal suffrage.) Most of all, he is known mostly for being one of the greatest pubic orators of all time.

Running short on patience with regard to his most cherished priority, Douglass had been one of Lincoln’s fiercest critics early in the Civil War. But he came to be one of Lincoln’s most sincere admirers by the end of the war and thereafter. His remarks at the dedication ceremony in 1867 traced the development of his own sentiments:

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…. 

In the fullness of time, we saw Abraham Lincoln … 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.

A plaque on the monument gives it the name Freedom’s Memorial in grateful memory of Abraham Lincoln and 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 1 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. 

Eleanor Holmes Norton, currently DC’s nonvoting member of the US House of Representatives, has decided that the statue should come down. She intends to introduce legislation to that effect in the House. According to her, “the designers of the Emancipation Statue in Lincoln Park in DC didn’t take into account the views of African Americans. It shows. Blacks too fought to end enslavement. That’s why I’m introducing a bill to move this statue to a museum.”

The proposal to remove the statue has the enthusiastic support of a strong contingent of protesters who gathered at the site earlier this week and vowed to return later and get right to work to topple it.

It is demonstrably true that the designers of the statue didn’t take into account the views of African Americans such as Eleanor Holmes Norton as of June 2020 – or those that animate the group that gathered at the memorial this week –, but it also seems clear that her remarks in June 2020 don’t take into account the views of African Americans at the time that the statue was conceived, executed, and dedicated.

It may be difficult for Eleanor Holmes Norton and the protesters to accept, but it is just possible that Charlotte Scott, Archer Alexander, Frederick Douglass, and the emancipated citizens of the United States who paid for the monument had more insight into the views of African Americans alive in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War than they do. And a review of the record would confirm that, contrary to Homes Norton’s apparent understanding, Douglass made particular reference to the role of African American (he called them “dark and dusty”) soldiers in the Union Army in his remarks. It should come as no surprise that he would have done exactly that, the enlistment of African American soldiers in the Lincoln’s army having been one of the causes that he had vigorously recommended to the President at virtually every opportunity when they met and spoke during the war.

If the point of erecting memorials is to lock into place a record of a person or an event that is deserving of enduring memory, the message that Charlotte Scott hoped to deliver to posterity has been overshadowed in the minds of some by the context of more recent events and concerns.

It is a bad time to be a statue these days. If this one comes down, the event will itself be a symbol of the irony of our current day, in which the sentiment that is causing memorials to defenders of slavery to fall will have also also led – almost a century and a half after its dedication – to the destruction of a memorial to the single most important agent in the ending of that slavery, erected by those who, in his time, understood and appreciated his accomplishment and wanted future generations to know it.