As communities across the country reconsider statues and monuments of historical figures, protesters in Washington, D.C., are increasing calls to remove the Emancipation Memorial, a statue of a freed slave crouching before President Abraham Lincoln, after attempts in the past week to tear it down have intensified the debate over its value.
The bronze memorial in Lincoln Park dates back to 1876 and was intended to commemorate the Emancipation Proclamation, the executive order signed by Lincoln that ended slavery in the Confederacy. Though the funds for the memorial were raised by freed slaves, they did not have a say in what it would depict. It has long drawn controversy for the position of the freed slave at the feet of Lincoln, whose left hand hovers above the slave’s shirtless back.
The push to remove the statue comes amid a broader campaign unfolding across the country to remove or topple statues and monuments that are seen by some as honoring racist historical figures. Discussions around the Emancipation Memorial, however, have proved to be more thorny, with everyone from local residents to President Donald Trump debating what the interaction between the two figures was intended to convey.
“The meaning is degrading,” said Marcus Goodwin, a candidate for the District of Columbia Council. “To see my ancestors at the feet of Lincoln — it’s not imagery that inspires African Americans to see themselves as equal in this society.”
Goodwin has led calls for the memorial, also known as the Freedman’s Memorial, to be taken down through a legal process, including a petition that prompted Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., to announce she will introduce legislation before the House of Representatives to remove the memorial.
“The statue fails to note in any way how enslaved African Americans pushed for their own emancipation,” Norton said in a statement Tuesday. “It is time it was placed in a museum.”
For Marcia E. Cole, those criticizing the memorial are ignoring its context, one that she has tried to defend in heated conversations with protesters at Lincoln Park.
“He’s on one knee, clearly in the act of rising,” Cole said of the freed slave depicted in the memorial. “He’s seizing his own agency.”
Some critics of the memorial, impatient with the lack of a response from government officials over the years, announced their intention in the past week to take matters into their own hands and tear it down.
“When I look at that statue, I’m reminded my freedom and my liberation is only dictated by white people’s terms,” said Glenn Foster, 20, who formed The Freedom Neighborhood, a local group that has organized efforts to topple the memorial. “We’re trying to let the government know we’re not going to wait any longer for our freedom to happen.”
Word spread quickly of the group’s intentions, and on Friday, supporters of the statue showed up alongside those prepared to topple it, as well as those who wanted to wait for the legal process to play out.
“Things have gone from zero to 100 in a matter of days,” said Cole, who often portrays Charlotte Scott, the African American woman who raised funds for the memorial after Lincoln’s assassination, in reenactments and other events organized by a group associated with the African-American Civil War Museum. Scott is remembered in a plaque below the memorial.
But tensions were not limited to the streets of Washington. Trump, speaking at a Fox News forum Thursday, slammed the protesters who want to tear down the memorial, calling them “rioters” and “bad people.”
“I can see the controversy, but I can also see the beauty in it,” Trump said of the memorial.
“I can understand certain things being taken down,” he added. “But we ought to go through a process, legally.”
The memorial sits in Lincoln Park, which is federal land under the jurisdiction of the Interior Department. So although mayors and governors across the country have responded to calls from local protesters by removing statues and monuments seen as racist, Washington’s mayor does not have that authority.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the minority leader, wrote Wednesday on Twitter that he had spoken about the memorial with David Bernhardt, the interior secretary, who had conveyed to him that Trump would “not allow the Emancipation Memorial of President Lincoln to be destroyed by the left-wing mob.”
Norton, the congresswoman, said that she would work with the National Park Service, the Interior Department agency that manages the park, to determine whether the memorial could be removed without congressional direction. If not, she said, she intends to push forward on efforts to pass legislation in Congress directing that the memorial be removed.
Katie Liming, a spokeswoman for the National Park Service, said that the service “appreciates the community’s engagement” and that park staff has met with members of the community regarding the memorial. But with the Trump administration at the helm, it is unlikely that the National Park Service will remove the memorial. Yet, the alternative of passing legislation through a Congress divided on most issues also presents a great challenge to activists calling for its removal.
“If we had autonomy, it would be a different situation,” said Cole, who ultimately would like to see a peaceful solution that appeases all parties. She is not against placing the memorial in a museum.
This month, protesters tore down a statue of Confederate Brig. Gen. Albert Pike, which also stood on federal land in Washington. City officials had been trying to remove the statue for years to no avail, despite a bill introduced to that effect by Norton. Trump has reportedly requested that the statue be reinstated.
The president has repeatedly said he does not support efforts nationwide to remove statues or monuments, or to rename Army bases named for Confederate officers. On Friday, he went as far as to issue an executive order instructing law enforcement to punish those who damage federal monuments or statues to the fullest extent of the law.
“Anarchists and left-wing extremists have sought to advance a fringe ideology that paints the United States of America as fundamentally unjust,” the executive order reads.
A replica of the memorial also stands in Boston, the home of its sculptor, Thomas Ball, who is white. Thousands have also signed a petition to remove the replica.
Among other options that they support, Goodwin and Foster have advocated replacing the memorial with one that honors an African American woman. Goodwin added that the depiction of a freed slave in the memorial is probably one that even Lincoln himself would not have approved.
He pointed to an anecdote penned by a U.S. Navy officer who served in the Civil War, when freed slaves knelt before the president after their emancipation. According to Adm. David Porter, Lincoln was “much embarrassed.”
“Don’t kneel to me,” Lincoln said. “That is not right.”