April 14, 2010

Douglass dedicates monument

The Freedman's Monument, or Emancipation Monument, in Washington, D.C. was not the only project to memorialize Abraham Lincoln. It was, however, the first to solicit donations solely from former slaves or, according to the National Park Service, "those who had most directly benefited from Lincoln's act of emancipation."

The statue, designed by Thomas Ball, was unveiled on April 14, 1876. In his right hand, Lincoln holds a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation over a pedestal with an image of George Washington. Lincoln's left hand hovers over a kneeling former slave whose chains have been broken.

The dedicatory speech was made by author and activist Frederick Douglass at the statue's unveiling. Calling it a "national act — an act which is to go into history," he emphasized the event's importance for freed men (and presumably women):

Wise and thoughtful men of our race, who shall come after us, and study the lesson of our history in the United States; who shall survey the long and dreary spaces over which we have traveled; who shall count the links in the great chain of events by which we have reached our present position, will make a note of this occasion; they will think of it and speak of it with a sense of manly pride and complacency.

The memorial, though depicting Lincoln, was intended to honor the concept of emancipation. Even so, Douglass's speech elevates Lincoln as the personal savior of enslaved people. Douglass concluded:

Fellow-citizens, the fourteenth day of April, 1865, of which this is the eleventh anniversary, is now and will ever remain a memorable day in the annals of this Republic. It was on the evening of this day, while a fierce and sanguinary rebellion was in the last stages of its desolating power; while its armies were broken and scattered before the invincible armies of Grant and Sherman; while a great nation, torn and rent by war, was already beginning to raise to the skies loud anthems of joy at the dawn of peace, it was startled, amazed, and overwhelmed by the crowning crime of slavery—the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. It was a new crime, a pure act of malice. No purpose of the rebellion was to be served by it. It was the simple gratification of a hell-black spirit of revenge. But it has done good after all. It has filled the country with a deeper abhorrence of slavery and a deeper love for the great liberator.

The statue was unveiled on the 11-year anniversary of the day Lincoln was shot (which was also the country's centennial year), rather than the anniversary of his death the next day, possibly as a symbol of recognizing the living aspect of Lincoln's legacy.

It is worth noting that a copy of the statue in Boston was removed in 2020. The controversy stems from the statue depicting a black man kneeling to a white man. Though likely not the artist's intention, the symbolism is inappropriate in the 21st century.  

*I am particularly indebted to Lisa's History Room (a wonderful vignette-styled blog) for making me aware of this date.

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