In the city of Boston, that site of so many pivotal moments in American history, a controversy has been brewing over a memorial statue in Park Square. The statue is titled the Emancipation Memorial, sometimes called the Freedman’s Memorial or the Emancipation Group, and the Boston Arts Commission has voted to remove the memorial from where it has stood since 1879. The monument in Boston is actually a replica of the original located in our nation’s capital, now the subject of its own controversy. As more Civil War-era monuments come under scrutiny and become the target of protests, people are taking a closer look at not only the original intention of those works but also the way they are perceived in today’s current climate.
To the casual observer, the Emancipation Memorial is a heartfelt tribute to the Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln in January of 1863. His executive order proclaimed the freedom of the slaves in the 10 Confederate states still in rebellion and allowed them to be enlisted in the Union army. Most importantly, the Emancipation Proclamation made a promise: that the United States was committed to putting an end to slavery and that African Americans in the South need not fear being returned to slavery if the United States won the war. The Emancipation Proclamation granted freedom to an oppressed people, helped end the Civil War, and cemented Lincoln’s role in history as a liberator and champion of the enslaved African Americans.
The now-controversial memorial has an important connection to Ohio and Marietta, and its fate has drawn the interest of many historians and local history buffs. Readers of David McCullough’s book “The Pioneers” know that the men who settled Marietta and Washington County were staunch opponents of slavery. The buying or selling of slaves was prohibited in Ohio, and in 1841 a law was enacted that granted freedom to any slave brought into the state.
While Ohio was being settled, a Revolutionary War officer named William Scott was managing his plantation near Lynchburg, Virginia. A slave named Charlotte had been born on the plantation, and when Captain Scott passed away the plantation – and Charlotte – were bequeathed to his son Thomas. When Thomas had a daughter, Margaret Ann, Charlotte helped raise and care for the girl as if she were her own. In 1852 Margaret Ann married Dr. William Rucker and Thomas gave her several slaves, including Charlotte, as a wedding gift. Dr. Rucker and his new wife were strong unionists and had no desire to remain in Virginia. They decided to move to Ohio, but their decision to take Charlotte with them faced strong opposition. With the help of Colonel Joel McPhearson of Lewisburg, West Virginia, they managed to make their way through military lines and took up residence in Marietta.
The Ruckers gave Charlotte her freedom papers and began paying her a salary, and she remained with the family in their Marietta home. According to local historian and author Jann Adams, the Rucker home was at the corner of Fourth and Putnam Streets, the current site of the First Baptist Church. “Most people don’t realize this Marietta connection to the Emancipation Memorial, and the story of Charlotte Scott is a fascinating one.”
As the widely repeated story goes, the Rucker family was at breakfast when they heard about the assassination of President Lincoln. They sat in shocked silence, and it was Charlotte who broke the silence. “Well! Well! The best friend of the colored people is dead. The colored people ought to raise a monument to his memory.” She then went to her meager savings, money she had earned as a freed woman, and withdrew five dollars. She handed it to Dr. Rucker and asked him to find someone who could organize a drive to raise funds from people of color to build a memorial to the slain president.
Rucker sent the donation to General T. C. Smith, a Union cavalry officer, who enlisted the help of James Yeatman, a St. Lois philanthropist and civic leader. Yeatman happily took up the cause and over the next decade, his organization raised over $20,000 for the memorial. It is a testament to Lincoln’s status among African Americans that nearly all the funds raised were from “colored” people and especially those who served in the Union army. And so Charlotte Scott’s simple, impassioned gesture resulted in the creation of a 12-foot high monument, designed and sculpted by American artist Thomas Ball.
The design shows Lincoln standing, his right hand holding the Emancipation Proclamation and his left hand hovering above a kneeling emancipated slave. The man’s shackles are broken and he appears to be just about to rise up. The plaque on the pedestal reads: “Freedom’s Memorial, in Grateful Memory of Abraham Lincoln: This monument was erected by the Western Sanitary Commission of St. 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 was made by Charlotte Scott, a freed woman of Virginia, and consecrated by her suggestion and request on the day she heard of President Lincoln’s death.”
When the monument was unveiled on the eleventh anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination—April 14, 1876 – Charlotte Scott was in attendance, even posing for a photograph which was copied and sold as a souvenir. President Grant had the honor of unveiling the monument, and famed orator Fredrick Douglass was the keynote speaker.
When one reads the full transcript of Douglass’ speech, his words reveal a complex, almost conflicted, attitude toward Lincoln and the memorial. First, he went on at length about what an important and positive occasion the unveiling was: “ Wise and thoughtful men of our race, who shall come after us…will make a note of this occasion; they will think of it and speak of it with a sense of manly pride and complacency.” He acknowledged that just years before, the assembling of African Americans would have been met with violence and hate and that Lincoln’s Proclamation had resulted in a new era for his race. “The sentiment that brings us here today…is the sentiment of gratitude and appreciation.”
But Douglass didn’t mince words as he continued “truth compels me to admit, even here in the presence of the monument we have erected to his memory, Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man…He was preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men. He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country.” However, the overall tone of the ceremony was one of celebration – the celebration of freedom after centuries of oppression, the celebration of a great life ended too soon, and the celebration of hope for a future of opportunity.
So why the sudden controversy? Actually, the controversy may be recently more public and more widely acknowledged, but there has been some dissension about its design from the beginning. In fact, a letter that Douglass wrote to the National Republican newspaper just days after his speech was only recently uncovered by history professor Scott Sandage. In that letter, Douglass shared his honest feelings about the monument: “The negro here, though rising, is still on his knees and nude. What I want to see before I die is a monument representing the negro, not couchant on his knees like a four-footed animal, but erect on his feet like a man.”
That sentiment is shared by many today, who are not comfortable seeing the freed slave in what appears to be a subservient position. Last week, Eleanor Holmes Norton, DC’s non-voting member of Congress, agreed: “Although formerly enslaved Americans paid for this statue to be built, the design and sculpting process was done without their input, and it shows. The statue fails to note in any way how enslaved African Americans pushed for their own emancipation.” But Lincoln biographer Sidney Blumenthal claims that the now-controversial pose was inspired by the symbol of the abolitionist movement and the British anti-slavery campaign. In fact, the kneeling slave was on the masthead of the Liberator, a prominent abolitionist newspaper, and the image was well known.
While opponents to the monument take issue with the kneeling emancipated slave and what they feel is a white man’s interpretation, supporters of the monument believe its origin and back story make it deserving of preservation. They cite the fact that Charlotte Scott began the campaign with her heartfelt donation and that former slaves and freedmen funded the project, and also the importance of the Emancipation Proclamation it commemorates.
Is there an acceptable resolution to the controversy, or a compromise that would pay homage to Lincoln and his Proclamation without perpetuating an offensive stereotype? Douglass himself may have offered a solution when he wrote “Admirable as is the monument by Mr. Ball in Lincoln park, it does not, as it seems to me, tell the whole truth, and perhaps no one monument could be made to tell the whole truth of any subject which it might be designed to illustrate.”
Although the fate of the Boston monument may already be sealed, the original in Lincoln Park may be granted a reprieve. In 1974, a statue of Mary McLeod Bethune was installed at the opposite end of the park. The statue depicts the African American activist and educator accompanied by a pair of playful children. Perhaps the addition of monuments to other important figures such as Fredrick Douglass, Charlotte Scott, and even black Union soldiers (as suggested by some including Blumenthal) would create in Lincoln Park a true Emancipation Group. Such a group would honor those deserving of honor and inspire all of us to continue striving for complete and unequivocal equality.
Some years after the Civil War ended, Charlotte Scott returned to Virginia with the Ruckers. She lived out her years on a small property and homestead they deeded to her, finally passing at the age of 109 years. She might be surprised to know that her five-dollar gesture to honor her fallen hero created a ripple that is still touching people today.