Culture, Race

Taking down the Emancipation Memorial: When whiteness tells our stories

A statue of Abraham Lincoln with his hand on a pillar that has the silhouette of George Washington. Lincoln is standing with his over a kneeling Black man. The word "Emancipation" is inscribed on the statue's base.

In May of 2020, amidst national unrest sparked by the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and many others, symbols of the Confederacy have started to come down. The State of Mississippi voted to remove the confederate flag from its canton. A slave auction block was removed from the Historic Downtown of Fredericksburg, Virginia. Confederate statues on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia have been pulled down.

There have also been calls for the Emancipation Memorial in Washington, D.C. to be removed. The statue, which depicts Lincoln with his hand on a pillar standing over a crouching former slave on a pedestal engraved with the word “Emancipation,” was funded by formerly enslaved people, but its design and creation were overseen entirely by white people. The statue has been criticized for depicting a paternalistic view of Emancipation and erasing the role that enslaved people played in attaining their own freedom. 

In fact, Frederick Douglass criticized the statue on the day of its dedication. According to the Black historian John W. Cromwell, who was an eyewitness to the statue’s dedication, Douglass emphatically criticized the enslaved man’s “attitude”—that is posture—because “it showed the Negro on his knee when a more manly attitude would have been indicative of freedom.” Douglass’ comments were likely extemporaneous as they do not appear in the official manuscript of the speech.

The statue has been received with mixed feelings from Black Washingtonians. The statue being funded by emancipated slaves is a source of pride, but the imagery of the statue is problematic for many. According to historian C.R. Gibbs, when the statue of Mary McLeod Bethune was erected in Lincoln Park in the 1970s, many Black Washingtonians started referring to it as Bethune Park. The name didn’t stick, but it is indicative of sentiment toward the statue.  

Currently, activists are calling for the removal of the Emancipation Memorial for many of the same reasons that Frederick Douglass criticized the statue on its dedication day: it presents a “white savior” narrative of Emancipation and erases the active role that Black people played in the freedom struggle.

Opposition to the removal of the statue involves some of the usual charges of “erasing history” and “people being overly sensitive.” However, the arguments for keeping the Emancipation Memorial have taken on a different tone. Critics of the statue’s removal have appealed to the statue’s benefactors as evidence that the statue should stay. 

What this argument misses, however, is that although the statue was funded by Black people, there were no black people involved in the statue’s design process. The white people who were in charge of designing the memorial took the former slaves’ money and created a memorial that enshrined white people’s vision of what Emancipation meant without significant input or contribution from Black people. 

In many ways, the Emancipation Memorial represents a type of re-enslavement of those who contributed to the building of a memorial. Those whose financial contributions built the statue offered their hard-earned wages to the cause were stripped of any agency in determining whether the memorial suited their interests. The white people who designed the memorial were so caught up in honoring the recently-assassinated Lincoln, that it seems like they failed to consider the message their work would send to the Black community both then and in the future. 

The Emancipation Memorial represents what happens when whiteness is centered in the struggle for Black Freedom: we are cast as supporting characters in our own stories. Imagine if someone retold the story of The Color Purple as a love story between Mr.— and Shug; that’s exactly how Black people are treated in our own history, especially when it comes to Lincoln. It’s time for us to take back the narrative. The statue should be taken down and its story—the full story—told in the National Museum of African American History and Culture. 

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