On April 14, 1876, a 70-year-old African American named Archer Alexander, would be immortalized as the man that represented the former enslaved on the Freedom Memorial, also often referred to as the Emancipation Monument, in our Nation’s Capital. With him was President Abraham Lincoln, the very man who had given him freedom. His first biographer William Greenleaf Eliot stated “whose freedom came directly from the hand of President Lincoln… and his own hands had helped to break the chains that bound him. The identity of the monument’s enslaved man would not be fully recognized until Eliot’s The Story of Archer Alexander was published in 1885. However, recent research reveals that there is much more to this story and that Eliot’s book should be treated as historical fiction. Today, it is even more important that Archer’s actual life be known and his story told.
Archer, born in 1806 in Rockbridge County, Virginia, was brought to Missouri in 1829 by his enslaver James H. Alexander. He and his wife Louisa would live the next 30 years in St. Charles County and raise at least 7 of their 10 children. By 1844, the family had been split between two owners with Louisa’s enslaver being a merchant named James Naylor and Archer being enslaved by his neighbor Richard H. Pitman. In January 1863, Archer overheard the area men plotting to destroy a nearby railroad bridge where it crossed Peruque Creek, a vital link for the Union troops in Missouri. Archer informed them of the threat, thereby saving hundreds of lives and a nearby contraband camp. When the informant’s identity was discovered, Archer had to flee via the network to freedom known as the underground railroad.
Archer found refuge in St. Louis in the home of an abolitionist and Unitarian minister named William Greenleaf Eliot, the founder of Washington University. Eliot was also a founding member of the Western Sanitary Commission, a non-profit commission established by Major General John C. Fremont at the beginning of the war, that would be in charge of establishing hospitals, nurses, and necessary aid for the Union Troops, both white and black. They also assisted with the contraband camps, Freedmen’s Bureau, and the refugees fleeing the south.
Not only did Eliot provide refuge for Archer, but used his military connections to see him “declared to be an emancipated slave and a FREE MAN by virtue of the proclamation of President… His freedom was granted for “important services to the U.S. military forces and “disloyalty of Master” on September 24, 1863.
Their fateful connection did not end there. On April 14, 1865, at 10:15 in the evening at Ford’s Theater in Washington DC John Wilkes Booth entered the back of Lincoln’s theater box, crept up from behind, and fired at the back of Lincoln’s head, mortally wounding him. After being attended by doctors, Lincoln was taken across the street to Petersen House. Lincoln died at 7:22 in the morning on April 15. The morning following the assassination, upon hearing of President Lincoln’s murder “Charlotte Scott, an emancipated slave, brought five dollars to her former master, a Union refugee from Virginia, residing in Marietta, Ohio. It was her first earnings as a free woman, and she begged that it might be used “to make a monument to Massa Lincoln, the best friend the colored people ever had.””Mr. Rucker placed it in the hands of General Smith, who forwarded it to Mr. James E. Yeatman, President of the Western Sanitary Commission of St. Louis …Would it not be well to take up this suggestion, and make it known to the freedmen? The suggestion was accepted, and a circular letter was published inviting all freedmen to send contributions for the purpose to the Commission in St. Louis. In response, liberal sums were received from colored soldiers at Natchez, Miss., amounting to $12,150, which was soon increased from other sources to $16,242.“
The project fell into the commission’s lap because of its relief work for the many thousands of black refugees in the western theater during the war. The circular states “A Monument is proposed to be erected in the City of Washington, by contributions from the Colored Regiments of the National Army, and the. Freedmen of all the United States, in honor of Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, and in the testimony of the gratitude of four million American Citizens…”
OTHER DESIGNS CONSIDERED
After 1865 there were other national monument organizations springing up and the political struggle over the legacy of the war was turning increasingly on the definition of the rights of the freedmen. They redoubled their fund-raising efforts by appointing the distinguished black lawyer and activist Professor John Mercer Langston of Washington, D.C. to solicit contributions from African American communities. When a Springfield Illinois group’s decision to avoid any representation of emancipated figures, whether secondary or not, came to an end, the Western Sanitary Commission’s project took a surprising turn. Still lacking sufficient funds Eliot visited his friend and sculptor Thomas Ball, from Boston “In the summer of 1869, I was in Florence, Italy…I saw a group in marble which he had … executed immediately after President Lincoln’s death. When I told him what we were trying to do, … he said at once, with enthusiasm, that the group was at our service … When told of the sum actually in hand, he said it was amply sufficient.” The Commission would accept this with one change…”the representative form of a negro should be…helping to break the chain that had bound him. Photographic pictures of ARCHER ALEXANDER, a fugitive slave, were sent to him…“. Ball would be asked to straighten Archer’s right arm and make it culminate in a clenched fist. In 1873, St. Louis Newspapers would share photos of the proposed monument titled Emancipation by Sculptor Thomas Ball.
On April 14, 1876, newspapers would carry the story: “The unveiling of the Lincoln statue…was a feature of today’s holiday. The colored people were out in full force. The procession was very large, including the colored troops, Knights Templars of St. Augustine, The Sons of Purity, Sons of Levi, Good Samaritans, Labor League, and other uniformed benevolent associations, accompanied by music. There was an immense assemblage at the park. The statue, covered with flags, was a great object of interest. The first contribution to the statue funds was made on the morning after the assassination of President Lincoln, by Charlotte Scott, a colored woman of Marietta, who gave five dollars. The original cost of the monument was $17,000 and other incidental expenses have all been paid by subscriptions by colored people. The last congress appropriated $3,000 for a pedestal and the statue was allowed to pass the customs house free of duty. The statue is of bronze, twelve feet high, resting up a pedestal ten feet high…..There was on the speaker’s stand the President, members of the Cabinet, Justices of the Supreme Court, foreign ministers, senators, representatives, and other persons of prominence. After prayer music by the Marine band, Hail Columbia, and reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. Prof Langston [colored] formally accepted the statue on behalf of the entire country and then called upon President Grant to unveil it. Prolonged applause greeted the words of the speaker and increased when the president stepped to the front and grasped the rope that was attached to the flag veiling the statue. Amidst deafening cheers of the multitude music, and booming of cannon, the beautiful monument stood unveiled. A poem was read and composed by Miss Cordelia Ray (colored) of New York.
Frederick Douglass was then introduced amid applause and delivered an eloquent oration “I warmly congratulate you upon the highly interesting object which has caused you to assemble in such numbers and spirit as you have today. This occasion is in some respects remarkable. Wise and thoughtful men of our race, who shall come after us, and study the lesson of our history in the United States; …who shall count the links in the great chain of events by which we have reached our present position, will make a note of this occasion; they will think of it and speak of it with a sense of manly pride and complacency… Nowhere else in this great country, with its uncounted towns and cities, unlimited wealth, and immeasurable territory extending from sea to sea, could conditions be found more favorable to the success of this occasion than here. We stand today at the national center to perform something like a national act-an act which is to go into history; and we are here where every pulsation of the national heart can be heard, felt, and reciprocated… For the first time in the history of our people, and in the history of the whole American people, we join in this high worship and march conspicuously in the line of this time-honored custom. First things are always interesting, and this is one of our first things. This would be the only National monument to Lincoln in Washington, D.C. until 1922, which celebrates its’ 100th Anniversary this year.ORATION BY FREDERICK DOUGLASS DELIVERED ON THE OCCASION OF THE UNVEILING OF THE FREEDMEN’S MONUMENT, APRIL 14, 1876, Collection of Frederick Douglass materials, Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution. Box 2, Folder 2, April 14, 1876
On December 8, 1880, Archer would be buried by his family in the former Deutsch Evangelical Church Cemetery, today’s St. Peters United Church of Christ  in St Louis. In a common lot grave, several deep, and no markers. [The cemetery has provided a location, where the family is planning to erect a marker that gives testimony to their ancestor. Archer is the great-great-great-grandfather of Muhammad Ali.] Because of one split-second decision, with an act of supreme heroism, Archer would become the “last fugitive slave” on the Emancipation Memorial. Today, Archer Alexander represents all those enslaved whose heavy chains have been broken, and by some is seen as rising – his freedom now within sight – still fixed on that moment in time of April 14th of 1865. While this monument was totally paid for by those who were enslaved it belongs to our entire Nation.
 ORATION BY FREDERICK DOUGLASS DELIVERED ON THE OCCASION OF THE UNVEILING OF THE FREEDMEN’S MONUMENT, APRIL 14, 1876, Collection of Frederick Douglass materials, Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution. Box 2, Folder 2, April 14, 1876
Photo from National Park Service: https://www.nps.gov/places/000/emancipation-memorial.htm