Reckoning with Boston’s Emancipation monument

Jul 16, 2020

While searching Historic New England’s online collections, Editorial Services Manager Dorothy A. Clark came upon several historical images of The Emancipation Group in Park Square in Boston. This material offers the opportunity to engage in the nationwide discussion of contested monuments and statues and their role in history and public memory. Here is what she has to say.

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 poem that John G. Whittier wrote for the December 6, 1879, dedication ceremony of the Bronze Group Commemorating Emancipation that stands in Park Square. It is now 141 years later and many do not see this monument as bearing witness to that poetic declaration of its strength of truth and righteousness. Indeed, it has had numerous critics since the beginning of its existence. Now, the Boston Art Commission’s June 30 unanimous vote has designated The Emancipation Group, as it is commonly called, 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 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 unveiled in Washington, D.C., in 1876. The sculptor, Charlestown, Massachusetts-born Thomas Ball (1819-1911), was a Lincoln admirer and created a similar (though smaller) tribute group shortly after the president’s assassination.

Moses Kimball (1809-1895) donated The Emancipation Group to the city of Boston. Kimball was a well-known public figure: a newspaperman, public speaker, businessman, and politician; and a philanthropist and temperance advocate. Kimball commissioned Ball to duplicate the Freedmen’s Memorial as a present from him to Boston.

At the dedication ceremony Mayor Frederick O. Prince told the crowd “it is his [Kimball’s] 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 of 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. Prince noted that since their manumission, the formerly enslaved “have shown themselves generally disposed to be orderly and well behaved.”

Calls to remove The Emancipation Group are not new. For decades municipal leaders have been unwilling to acknowledge the monument as a symbol of racial inequity. They defended the presence of the statue as a valuable reminder of history while ignoring the many requests to add information to expand the interpretation and context .

So how it all started

The Western Sanitary Commission, a Saint Louis, Missouri-based Civil War relief agency run by abolitionists, commissioned the Washington, D.C. monument. Black donors paid for that monument, seeded in 1865 by the $5 contribution from the once-enslaved Charlotte Scott of Marietta, Ohio. The Western Sanitary Commission spread the word about the project and while African Americans gave money, the commission did not include them in the planning and design process. Eleven years later the project was completed and dedicated on April 14, 1876.

What Frederick Douglass had to say

Among the speakers invited to ceremony was rights activist and national abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass. Douglass seized the opportunity to alternately praise Lincoln for ending slavery and censure the president’s complicity in maintaining systemic racism. Douglass said, Lincoln was “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.”

And what we are still are discussing today

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 this and other monuments to stand in place argue that removing them erases history. However, given that so many of these monuments distort history when they don’t erase it, the argument is specious. 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. Murray, a 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 in giving this advice about 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 ‘interpret’ it; and try to interpret it from our own peculiar viewpoint.”