When his friend William Greenleaf Eliot shared a photograph of the Emancipation Memorial with Archer Alexander, he emotionally exclaimed I’se free![i]The bronze monument features Alexander, an enslaved African-American on one knee and wearing a slave’s cuff and rising before President Abraham Lincoln. It was dedicated April 14th, 1876, marking the 11thAnniversary of Lincoln’s assassination, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. The beautiful monument located in Lincoln Park was placed[ii]in direct view of the U.S. Capitol during America’s period of Reconstruction, and is the only Washington, D.C. monument featuring an African-American and funded entirely by America’s former enslaved themselves.
Alexander, was born enslaved in 1806 in Rockbridge, Virginia and taken to Missouri in August of 1829. Property of James H. Alexander, son of a Presbyterian elder, five families and their slaves made the trek to Missouri and settled in St. Charles County, near Dardenne Creek. James Alexander would die of the cholera epidemic that was sweeping the region, leaving behind four orphans under the guardianship of their relative William Campbell, also from Virginia. In 1846, Archer, his wife Louisa, and their children would be separated when partitioned off in the settlement of Alexander’s estate, and eventually Archer would become the property of Richard H. Pitman, and his wife Louisa that of James Naylor, both who lived in the Dardenne Prairie neighborhood as well. It was there that Archer would overhear their owners plotting to undermine the nearby railroad bridge by sawing its supports. The slave would bravely run that night over five miles to warn the Union troops, known as Krekel’s Dutch, stationed to guard the bridge. Archer also informed them that Campbell had guns stored in his ice house for use by the area’s Southern sympathizers. Suspicion fell immediately on Archer, and he had to flee, leaving behind Louisa and their children.
Using the network known as the Underground Railroad, Archer made his way to St. Louis, where he was taken in by the Eliot family. William Greenleaf Eliot (1811-1887), was from Boston, Massachusetts, and his wife the former Abigail Adams Cranch was a niece of former President John Adams. A Unitarian minister, and the founder of Washington University, Eliot was the founder of the Western Sanitary Commission, and lived near Benton Barracks, where the Union’s contraband camps had established themselves. Eliot would work to establish Archer’s freedom, based on the law that anyone found treasonous to the U.S. and its’ military, their property was automatically confiscated and then freed. The two became close, and their friendship was cemented when in their final years Archer would share details of his life with Eliot, an abolitionist. After Archer’s death December 8, 1880, and burial at St. Peters Cemetery, Eliot would write The Story of Archer Alexander From Slavery to Freedom March 30, 1863. Published in 1883 in Boston, it was still an era rife with emotion, and changing the identity of some of the characters would be necessary to see the publication happen.
Eliot’s book begins with “Freedom’s Memorial:Abraham Lincoln. – Archer Alexander. “And upon this act I invoke the considerate judgement of mankind and the gracious favor of Almighty God.” – Proclamation of Freedom, Jan. 1, 1863. Eliot shares how the bronze group known as “Freedom’s Memorial” represents President Lincoln in the act of emancipating a negro slave who kneels at his feet to receive the benediction, but whose hand has grasped the chain as if in the act of breaking it, indicated the historical fact that the slaves took active part in their own deliverance”[iii]and gives a brief account.
Soon after Lincoln’s assassination, an African-American woman named Charlotte Scott took to her former owner, Mr. William P. Rucker, the first five dollars earned after emancipation. She wanted to see it used “to make a monument to Massa Lincoln the best friend the colored people ever had.”[iv] Mr. Rucker, a Union refugee from Virginia who was living in Ohio then, gave the fund to General T.H.C. Smith, a close friend Eliot and James E. Yeatman, head of the Western Sanitary Commission. Smith told Yeatman “Such a monument would have a history more grand and touching than any of which we have account”[v].The Western Sanitary Commission invited all freedmen to send contributions, and $16,242.00 was soon raised. But then“came a revulsion of feeling, from various causes, after the accession of President Johnson, which checked the movement”[vi]and the movement for the memorial was almost lost.
In 1870, Eliot would retire and visit his friend Thomas Ball, also from Massachusetts. The sculptor had moved to Florence, Italy after the Civil War. Eliot and Ball would talk, and Eliot share the photo and story of the brave hero and former slave Archer Alexander. Ball would state that the contributions so far would be ample and sufficient to commission the monument, and would superintend the cost of producing it in bronze and at its’ colossal size at the foundry in Munich in 1875. Congress accepted the statue as a gift from the “colored citizens of the United States“[vii]and appropriated $3,000 for a pedestal upon which it would rest. Dedicated on the 11thAnniversary of Lincoln’s assassination, it 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 freedwoman 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.”[viii]
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places “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)”[ix]and was dedicated by President U.S. Grant with world renown orator Frederick Douglass also present and speaking that day. Douglass’ words must be heard We have done a good work for our race today. In doing honor to the memory of our friend and liberator, we have been doing highest honors to ourselves and those who come after us; we have been fastening ourselves to a name and fame imperishable and immortal; we have also been defending ourselves from a blighting scandal. When now it shall be said that the colored man is soulless, that he has no appreciation of benefits or benefactors; when the foul reproach of ingratitude is hurled at us, and it is attempted to scourge us beyond the range of human brotherhood, we may calmly point to the monument we have this day erected to the memory of Abraham Lincoln.[x]
[i] Eliot, William G., The Story of Archer Alexander From Slavery to Freedom March 30, 1863, St. Louis, MO, Cupples, Upham and Company Boston, 1883. Available online https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/eliot/eliot.html
v National Park Service , National Register Information System, National Register of Historic Places, National Park Service
[x]URL captured 14 April 2019 https://rbscp.lib.rochester.edu/4402 River Campus Libraries ORATION IN MEMORY OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN, delivered at the unveiling of the Freedmen’s Monument in Memory of Abraham Lincoln, in Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C., April 14, 1876
Inaugural Ceremonies of the Freedmen’s Memorial Monument to Abraham Lincoln, Washington City, April 14, 1876, St. Louis, 1876, pp. 16-26