Boston Moves Its Lincoln Statue

A statue of Abraham Lincoln and a formerly enslaved man has been taken down in Park Square in Boston, Mass., after an intense debate and a petition to remove the work.
Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images

The “Emancipation” statue depicting Abraham Lincoln and a newly freed enslaved man at his feet was controversial from the beginning. Now Boston has removed its copy of that statue from Park Square.

This article tells us, “Workers dismantled a statue of Abraham Lincoln in Boston Tuesday, after the city agreed with protesters who say the memorial is demeaning and lacks proper context. The statue depicts Lincoln holding his hand over a kneeling Black man — a figure modeled on Archer Alexander, the last man captured under the Fugitive Slave Act. ‘We’re pleased to have taken it down this morning,’ a spokesperson for Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said in a statement to NPR, noting that the decision followed two public hearings and a petition from artist Tory Bullock in which 12,000 people supported moving the statue. The statue, which stood in Park Square since 1879, is a copy of Thomas Ball’s monument that still stands in Washington, D.C.’s Lincoln Park. The original work, which came to be known as the Emancipation Group, was purchased through donations by freed enslaved people and Black veterans of the Union Army. A copy was then erected in Boston, Ball’s hometown. The Boston Art Commission voted to remove the city’s prominent Lincoln statue six months ago, as protesters against racial injustice called for controversial monuments to be either taken down entirely or placed into a new historical context. ‘The decision for removal acknowledged the statue’s role in perpetuating harmful prejudices and obscuring the role of Black Americans in shaping the nation’s freedoms,’ according to the mayor’s office. The original statue’s creation was sparked the morning after Lincoln died in 1865, when Charlotte Scott, a former Virginia enslaved woman living in Ohio, asked her employer to send $5 to help build a monument to Lincoln, according to the National Park Service. A fundraising campaign raised thousands of dollars – but the process of designing and commissioning the statue was controlled by a white-run war-relief agency called the Western Sanitary Commission. Even Frederick Douglass – who spoke at the Washington, D.C., monument’s dedication in 1876 – had his reservations about the statue. ‘Admirable as is the monument by Mr. Ball in Lincoln park, it does not, as it seems to me, tell the whole truth,’ Douglass wrote in a letter that came to light this summer. He continued, ‘and perhaps no one monument could be made to tell the whole truth of any subject which it might be designed to illustrate.’ Douglass noted that the monument omits mention of the role President Ulysses S. Grant played in enfranchising former enslaved people. He also said memorials should aspire to portray Black people in a new light. ‘The negro here, though rising, is still on his knees and nude,’ Douglass wrote. ‘What I want to see before I die is a monument representing the negro, not couchant on his knees like a four-footed animal, but erect on his feet like a man.’ Similar sentiments were heard in Washington and elsewhere over the summer of 2020, as protests and debates erupted over how best to display markers to America’s troubled history of racial discrimination and inequality. In June, hundreds of people gathered in Lincoln Park to discuss what should happen to the statue there. Boston’s plans for its statue are still in flux; the mayor’s office says the work will be moved to a ‘publicly accessible location where its history and context can be better explained.’ For now, the statue will sit in a storage facility in South Boston. The city is asking the public to submit ideas about how the monument should be displayed.”

This article tells us, “But while some saw the shirtless man rising to his feet while shaking off the broken shackles on his wrists, others perceived him as kneeling before Lincoln, his white emancipator. Freed Black donors paid for the original in Washington; white politician and circus showman Moses Kimball financed the copy in Boston. The inscription on both reads: ‘A race set free and the country at peace. Lincoln rests from his labors.’ More than 12,000 people had signed a petition demanding the statue’s removal, and Boston’s public arts commission voted unanimously to take it down. The statue was to be placed in storage until the city decides whether to display it in a museum. The memorial had been on Boston’s radar at least since 2018, when it launched a comprehensive review of whether public sculptures, monuments and other artworks reflected the city’s diversity and didn’t offend communities of color. The arts commission said it was paying extra attention to works with ‘problematic histories.’ “

We also have this article from Boston, which gives us more information. It says, “After months of debate combined with protests calling for equity and racial justice, the Boston Art Commission voted unanimously to remove the statue in July. Boston 25 spoke with Boston University professor Raul Fernandez who studied the monument and what it represents. Fernandez says the statue uses a subservient Black man as a prop to lift up a white savior. He added that Abraham Lincoln deserves respect, but it shouldn’t come this way. ‘It’s easy to look at statues like Robert E. Lee and Confederate generals and say well clearly that has no place in our public spaces now, but this one for a lot of people is a lot more complicated,’ Fernandez said. ‘This is a moment of change for us and a moment of opportunity. To see a statue like this that has been there for 100+ years and now come down is not an easy thing.’ Fernandez hopes the conversation about public art leads to further discussion about public policy.”

Finally, according to this article, “The Boston replica was installed in 1879. It was donated by Moses Kimball, a politician and founder of the Boston Museum, according to the Arts and Culture website. The statue was based on a photograph of Archer Alexander, a formerly enslaved man who ‘helped the Union Army before seeking freedom for himself and his family,’ according to the city’s website. Alexander was recaptured several times under the Fugitive Slave Act. The bronze statue was meant to celebrate the emancipation of slaves, but some perceive it as subjecting oneself to Lincoln or a display of white dominance, according to the Harvard Library. While there’s always been criticism of the statue, it was a local petition started in June that renewed interested in its removal. Boston area actor and activist Tory Bullock started the petition, according to the city’s website. It had more than 12,000 signatures in favor of the removal. ‘It’s an amazing funeral, I’m here to provide a silent eulogy for this piece of artwork that’s been here for 141 years,’ Bullock told CNN affiliate WBZ as the statue was removed. ‘I’m proud, I’m Black and I’m young,’ Bullock said. ‘This image has been doing a lot of disservice to African Americans in Boston and now it stops.’ A series of virtual panel discussions and short-term art installations this winter will look at ‘examining and reimagining our cultural symbols, public art, and histories,’ the mayor’s spokeswoman said.”

We will no doubt get the typical “erasing history” whine from the ignorati. I’m pretty sure the people of Boston have not forgotten who Abraham Lincoln was. I checked my bookshelves and the two book cases of Lincoln books I have did not disappear once the statue was moved. Those who have little to no understanding of what happened are no doubt complaining about this now.

The city of Boston, after months of discussion and debate, decided, as is and should be their right, this statue no longer represents the values they wish to uphold, and so they moved it. They are going to move it to a location, to be determined, which will allow the public to view it with proper context and interpretation so people can learn its history, what it represents, and different views about it. In other words, it’s going to be surrounded by more history. I for one am happy there will be more history around it, and I have no problem with Boston determining what does and does not reflect their values.

2 comments

  1. Noma Petroff · · Reply

    Wonderful analysis. Also, this seems to be a time to highlight Frederick Douglass’s very masterful sensitivity, a quality we may not normally associate with him.

    The curtain goes up, the shocking statue is revealed. Douglass is momentarily stunned, and refers to this “very interesting statue.”

    The truth is obvious to him. The Freedmen and their friends have been duped! Their money has been invested in a ghastly piece of work and labeled “Emancipation.”

    But, Douglass can’t just come right out and say that. He can’t say, “Hey, you guys have been duped.” He can’t hurt them like that. Instead, he says it is a pretty nice statue — but really one that does not fully represent what freedom for the enslaved people really means. That was a supremely delicate way of phrasing things. But Douglass just doesn’t get credit for his sensitive handling of this delicate case.

    1. Thank you for the comment. I agree Douglass handled the situation with grace and tact. He was obviously grateful for a monument at all, even though he personally had a great deal of reservation about what it depicted. I’m not sure “duped” is the right word, though. I don’t think the sculptor had deception in mind. I think he just approached it from his vantage point, which was different from the freed people’s vantage point, and arguably different from our vantage point today.

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