The funding drive for the Emancipation Memorial began, according to much-publicized newspaper accounts from the era, with $5 given by former slave Charlotte Scott of Virginia, for the purpose of creating a memorial honoring Lincoln. The monument features Abraham Lincoln with Archer Alexander rising before him and boldly breaking his own chains. The Western Sanitary Commission’s James Yeatman and William Greenleaf Eliot joined in the effort and raised some $20,000.
In 1869, Eliot was already working with the group to build a statue of Lincoln, the “Great Emancipator”. The statue was was designed and sculpted by Boston native Thomas Ball, who corresponded with another Boston native, William Greenleaf Eliot. Ball had made an acceptable model, but Eliot’s group wanted to have a real freedman pose for it. Eliot gave Ball a photo of Alexander, and he was chosen as the model.
According to the National Park Service, the monument was paid for solely by former slaves: The campaign for the Freedmen’s Memorial Monument to Abraham Lincoln, as it was to be known, was not the only effort of the time to build a monument to Lincoln; however, as the only one soliciting contributions exclusively from those who had most directly benefited from Lincoln’s act of emancipation it had a special appeal … The funds were collected solely from freed slaves (primarily from African American Union veterans) or U.S. Colored Troops which was assisted by the Western Sanitary Commission.
The turbulent politics of the reconstruction era affected the fundraising campaign on many levels. The Colored People’s Educational Monument Association headed by Henry Highland Garnet wanted the monument to serve a didactic purpose as a school where freedmen could elevate themselves through learning. The revision also replaced a pile of books with the pillar.
When the preliminary monument was cast, the monument featured a kneeling African American with a service cap. Eliot conferred with Ball, and sent him a photograph of Archer Alexander. They may have met prior as well. The monument was changed to Alexander as a bare chested slave. This was the first such monument to feature an African American in 1876, and would have been radical at that time period, as only eleven years following the close of the Civil War. Reconstruction would not have been conducive either.
Compared to the original design, in which Lincoln’s hand seems to awaken the slave to his new freedom and to the realization that his shackles are gone, the memorial is more of an amalgamation of approaches. It is no longer allegorical but realistic. While the original design poses the question — will this slave become a man? — the revision implies a relationship between the two men.
In the final design, as in Ball’s original design, Lincoln holds a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation. A vine grows up the pillar and around the ring where the chain was secured while the Whipping Post in the background is draped. The document rests on a column that has George Washington, patriotic symbols and the stars and stripes. When the monument was cast in Munich, it was shipped to Washington D.C.. the following year, 1876 and accepted as a gift from the “colored citizens of the United States” and appropriated $3,000 for a pedestal upon which it would rest.
A plaque on the monument names it as “Freedom’s Memorial in grateful memory of Abraham Lincoln” and reads: “This monument was erected by the Western Sanitary Commission of Saint Louis Mo: With funds contributed solely by emancipated citizens of the United States declared free by his proclamation January 1 A.D. 1863. The first contribution of five dollars was made by Charlotte Scott. A freed woman of Virginia being her first earnings in freedom and consecrated by her suggestion and request on the day she heard of President Lincoln’s death to build a monument to his memory.”
In 1876, the statue was unveiled, in Lincoln Park in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, D.C.. There was a number of notable people in attendance at the event, including President Ulysses S. Grant and Frederick Douglass, another former slave, who was the Keynote Speaker. However, neither Alexander nor Eliot was present. John Cromwell , a Howard University historian who was in the audience, reported that Douglass said the statue “showed the Negro on his knees when a more manly attitude would have been indicative of freedom.”. This statement is still being made today, which shares the difference in attitudes between 1876 and the 21st Century. In many ways, it exemplified and reflected the hopes, dreams, striving, and ultimate failures of reconstruction.
The statue originally faced west towards the U.S. Capitol until it was rotated east in 1974 in order to face the newly erected Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial. It is a contributing property for the Civil War Monuments in Washington, D.C. list on the National Register of Historic Places.
The monument has long been the subject of controversy. According to information from American University, historian Kirk Savage condemned it in 1997, saying it was a monument entrenched in and perpetuating racist ideology because of the kneeling position.