Should the Freedmen’s Memorial Stay or Go?

Last night I sat in on a Boston Arts Commission meeting about Thomas Ball’s Freedmen’s Memorial located on Park Square. This is a copy of the original that was dedicated in Washington, D.C. in 1876. The memorial is once again in the news after a young Black resident called for its removal a few weeks ago. I shared my thoughts about it in a recent op-ed.

The meeting was an opportunity for residents of Boston to share their thoughts about what should be done. One of the speakers was a young Black woman who lives in an apartment next to the memorial. She described the pain of having to walk by this site every day with her young son, who constantly asks why a Black man that looks like his daddy is down on his knees in front of a white man. By this point she was in tears and her impassioned testimony almost brought me to tears.

Leading a discussion for history educators at the Freedmen’s Memorial in D.C. (2019)

Shortly after the meeting concluded I came across historian David Blight’s op-ed about the Freedman’s Memorial in D.C. His position is clear:

Rather than take down this monument to Lincoln and emancipation, create a commission that will engage new artists to represent the story of black freedom from one generation to the next. Let today’s imaginations take flight. Perhaps commission a statue of Douglass himself delivering this magnificent speech. So much new learning can take place by the presence of both past and present. As a nation, let’s replace a landscape strewn with Confederate symbols with memorialization of emancipation. Tearing down the Freedmen’s Memorial would be a terrible start for that epic process.

Blight makes as convincing a case for maintaining this memorial in situ as anyone could possibly do, but between this op-ed and the personal testimony above lies the rub and the question of whether these two perspectives can be reconciled.

I am not sure they can.

About the author: Thank you for taking the time to read this post. What next? Scroll down and join the discussion in the comments section. Looking for more Civil War content? You can follow me on Twitter. Check out my latest book, Searching For Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth, which is the first book-length analysis of the black Confederate myth ever published. Order your copy today.

22 comments… add one
  • Annette Varcoe Jun 28, 2020 @ 16:38

    Hi! I’m a PhD Historian, who works in public education full-time, and dabbles in teaching pre-service social studies teachers in higher education part-time. The excellent work, An Architecture of Education: African American Women Design the New South (by Angel David Nieves), has an in-depth first chapter about the historical context of the creation of this sculpture, and all the controversy it underwent due to competing agendas of predominately male leaders regarding purpose and design. (I believe you can read that chapter for free in Google Books.) I think her work makes the case for it’s removal – and should at least be considered when attempting to extrapolate the purpose today. Much like the Theodore Roosevelt at the American Museum of Natural History, it appears time to remove the Freedman’s Memorial from its present location so it can be placed in the correct historical and cultural context for interpretation.

    (An additional resource that would be great for further discussion is Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America, New Edition Paperback, by Kirk Savage.)

    Thank you. (and I loved reading Searching for Black Confederates! I’m now sharing it with my family, and have gotten some fellow history lovers to pick up a copy or download it from Amazon.)

    • Kevin Levin Jun 28, 2020 @ 16:55

      Hi Annette,

      Thanks for passing along the reference to Nieves’s book. I am familiar with Savage’s scholarship.

      Appreciate the kind words about SFBC.

  • Roy White Jun 27, 2020 @ 5:28

    Context is important. The visual context has Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, standing over the former slave as some god-like figure. The slave is the helpless supplicant–like the Prodigal Son in Jesus’ parable–who is totally dependent upon the grace and largesse of the white god-like figure. It is more of a desire of white people to feel noble about freeing the slaves and fighting a war at great cost to accomplish this freedom. And it is at the expense of black people who are frozen in a reality of gratitude…unending. It becomes a subtle depiction of white supremacy which maintains the superiority of the white person and the inferior black person who will never be equal to the god-like moral white person. This statue made a lot of white people feel better, while in the midst of enabling and allowing laws that made sure that the black person would never rise to being considered equal to a white person. This does not ignore the sacrifice of Lincoln and all who died fighting to accomplish freedom for all black people. But the statue does ignore the reality of the sacrifice and heroics of black people who fought for their freedom, who refused to accept second class status, and who forced society in general to come to terms with the existing inequality. When a black child sees this statue, that child sees a black man who is subservient to the white man. That child then has that image in his/her brain which says, “I’m not as good/powerful/smart/capable as that towering black man.” It also instills the idea that all black people must display gratitude to the moral white person…unending. When challenges are made by black people to a status quo that has sought to keep whites superior and blacks inferior–whites become indignant. “After all we have done for you…” which, again, only indicates another expression of white supremacy. The statue should be removed. Or a companion statue should be placed near it that communicates something far different, that a child can see and feel a sense of pride.

  • Matt McKeon Jun 27, 2020 @ 3:23

    I would like to see this issue settled with some hearings, where neighbors can have their say, hear testimony from experts, like, but not limited to Blight, and then a vote by the residents of Boston, or their elected councilors. The people should control their own public spaces and parks, and their decision should be respected.

    I don’t want to see people outside of Boston, or maybe even outside that neighborhood(Boston neighborhoods have a strong identity) making the decision, and I don’t want to see the statue vandalized.

  • Julie Jun 26, 2020 @ 10:50

    I don’t think the statue looks like the slave is kneeling down to Lincoln. I think he’s been on his knees and he’s getting up.

    • Yulanda Burgess Jun 26, 2020 @ 14:19

      Julie,
      I see the same: the broken chain is allowing him to get up from bended knees. His eyes are looking forward. His body is moving forward. His muscled body is tense, powerful and ready to begin a new future. I think the pose symbolizes the hope of those who were once enslaved.

  • Rick Cochran Jun 26, 2020 @ 7:59

    Leave it and place beside it the “risen slave,” standing tall, free and out of bondage. Perhaps more monuments to Frederick Douglas and other leaders could added. Alone it has no current appropriate context. However, it can used as part a great history. Build on it.

  • Rob Wick Jun 26, 2020 @ 6:22

    I think in the end Blight is correct. Legally speaking, it was the 13th amendment that permanently ended slavery. All the African Americans who left the plantation could still, in the eyes of the law, be considered slaves until that amendment passed and was ratified by the states. Lincoln’s struggle to get the amendment passed is certainly worthy of our memory as is the measures taken by those who fought against the institution in whatever capacity. Why does one have to take precedence over the other? Just because one side DID take precedence over the other for several years is no reason to quash one story in order to tell another. Both can, and should, coexist.

    Best
    Rob

  • George Jun 26, 2020 @ 5:48

    I was born in the South End of Boston and first noticed the statue in 1999 when I entered UMass-Boston located at a building in Park Square. It was a demeaning to me but I had forgotten about the statue until I would notice about twice since. I think it should be removed.

  • Zeke Jun 26, 2020 @ 5:20

    I have thought long about this. I have not seen the statue in person. I would like to know the expressions on each man’s face. There is a story about Transition that could be found in it— IF that is what their expressions convey. A tangible representation of the Emancipation Proclamation …
    But that would take a very special statue that could speak to that.
    My feeling is that most of us have no “skin in the game” — so those stakeholders represented should decide.

  • Yulanda Burgess Jun 26, 2020 @ 4:35

    The backstory of that monument needs to be told. Funds were raised by Charlotte Scott (https://www.loc.gov/item/2010647799/), an African American, immediately after the Civil War. USCT soldiers made major contributions and several prominent African Americans supported it throughout the concept and the erection in 1876. To them, Lincoln as a godlike figure and the monument represented their appreciation. It was one of the few monuments established during and after reconstruction depicting an African American, mostly funded by African Americans. People should be informed of this story.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 26, 2020 @ 5:04

      Blight goes into the backstory in his op-ed as do I in mine. Your final point is a good one. I believe it is the first time an African American was depicted in a memorial in the United States.

      • Yulanda Burgess Jun 26, 2020 @ 9:59

        Forgive me for making my comment without reading Dr. Blight’s op-ed. That’s done now. I have supported that monument often by giving the same history – but less eloquently – as Dr. Blight. Responses have been “oh… I didn’t know that.” It’s one of the few monuments built depicting an African American (one is in Detroit) during reconstruction and jim crow. It should remain because it’s an in-time reflection by the African American community towards their freedom during THEIR lifetime. It’s equivalent to removing anything that says “United States Colored Troops” because nowadays people think the word “colored” is offensive. More attention should be given towards these back stories as there is a rush to remove without total understanding. In post Civil War, this is what that group of African Americans chose to celebrate their liberation. Who are we to tell them as they lay in their graves that they were wrong and that their sentiments were wrong. I would be greatly offended if years from now the Joe Louis Fist in Detroit was removed because it was considered offensive. Every monument has a back story…

    • Brian Dirck Jun 26, 2020 @ 8:14

      Personally, I think it needs to be removed to a museum and properly contextualized. That statue’s history is quite complex, and not easily explained or understood, certainly not if left standing as it is, with little serious effort at an explanation.

      • Kevin Levin Jun 26, 2020 @ 8:21

        Hi Brian,

        Thanks for adding your voice to this post. I completely agree that it is complex. Perhaps there is room in a museum, but right now most museums are just getting back on their feet and will likely have other pressing concerns just to keep their doors open moving forward.

        Contextual panels are problematic. We may be passed the point where those are considered viable solutions, but they certainly will not address the concerns that the woman referenced in the post experiences on a daily basis.

    • Joshism Jul 4, 2020 @ 12:17

      Quite an interesting backstory.

      I don’t think I’d ever heard of this monument before this post.

  • Msb Jun 26, 2020 @ 3:02

    Good luck to the people of Boston in working this out. At least the state legislature will let them get on with it.

  • George William Newport Jun 26, 2020 @ 2:27

    I am sure a third world shithole country can be found for this young black radical woman to live in who is too stupid to explain to her young son the memorial represents the african americans or blacks showing appreciation for all of the changes made to the laws at this time

    • Kevin Levin Jun 26, 2020 @ 2:44

      I hope you feel better now, George.

  • David R McCallister Jun 26, 2020 @ 2:20

    Sow the wind and you reap the whirlwind

    • Msb Jun 26, 2020 @ 3:00

      Yeah, somebody should have reminded John “Positive Good” Calhoun of that.

    • Deeva Jun 27, 2020 @ 10:50

      If our country is so BAD why does 8 billion people want to live in the United States.

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