This article first appeared at lawrencegsimmons.wordpress.com.
All across America, crowds armed with spray cans, picket signs, and megaphones flood public parks protesting against the presence of historical monuments honoring men who were in some way connected to America’s dark past of slavery. While the act of protesting and removing historical monuments is not new, the debate has reached all new levels as a result of the tragic murder of George Floyd. The scope of such protests no longer center around Confederate soldiers but even the Founding Fathers, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant (a Commanding General of the Union), and even Winston Churchill.
One of the monuments that has entered into recent discussions is the Emancipation Memorial in Boston. In an article by Meghan E. Irons of the Boston Globe, social media influencer Tory Bullock appealed to Mayor Martin J. Walsh to remove the memorial. He goes so far as even to launch a petition. In an another interview reported by WBZ-TV’s Lisa Hughes, Bullock said that “a lot of people look at it like it represents freedom but for me as a black man and walking down here, I don’t see freedom.”
While I am sympathetic towards the efforts of citizens pushing back against the whitewashing of American history (look at the end of the article to see the definition), at first glance, I could not understand in any way how a Black person could protest against a memorial of Abraham Lincoln. So, instead of just writing an article about how dumb such an idea sounded to me, I first chose to do some reading on the matter. And the historical data that I found concerning the monument came as a complete surprise. Enter Frederick Douglass.
In the Oration by Frederick Douglass Delivered On the Occasion of the Unveiling of the Freedmen’s Monument in Memory of Abraham Lincoln, which I accessed from the Smithsonian Institution website, Douglass provided a charitable, yet harsh portrayal of Lincoln. Douglass said,
“First things are always interesting, and this is one of our first things. It is the first time that, in this form and manner, we have sought to do honor to an American great man, however deserving and illustrious. . . . that . . . we, the colored people, newly emancipated and rejoicing in our blood-bought freedom, near the close of the first century in the life of this Republic, have now and here unveiled, set apart, and dedicated a monument of enduring granite and bronze, in every line, feature, and figure of which the men of this generation may read, and those of after-coming generations may read, something of the exalted character and great works of Abraham Lincoln, the first martyr President of the United States”Frederick Douglass
Even though Douglass supported Lincoln’s emancipation of the slaves, Douglass still believed that it was necessary to keep a comprehensive view of the “Great Emancipator.”
“Truth is proper and beautiful at all times and in all places, and it is never more proper and beautiful in any case than when speaking of a great public man whose example is likely to be commended for honor and imitation long after his departure to the solemn shades, the silent continents of eternity. It must be admitted, 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. . . . First, midst, and last, you and yours were the objects of his deepest affection and his most earnest solicitude. You are the children of Abraham Lincoln. We are at best only his step-children; children by adoption, children by force of circumstances and necessity. To you it especially belongs to sound his praises, to preserve and perpetuate his memory, to multiply his statues, to hang his pictures high upon your walls, and commend his example, for to you he was a great and glorious friend and benefactor. . . . for while Abraham Lincoln saved for you a country, he delivered us from a bondage, according to Jefferson, one hour of which was worse than ages of the oppression your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose”Frederick Douglass
Furthermore, in direct connection with current discussions concerning the Freedmen’s Memorial, Douglass appears to take offense with the memorial itself. In what appears to be a newly discovered letter, Douglass said that “it [the monument] 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.” While the original artist Thomas Ball made changes to the design of the memorial that made the “emancipated slave an agent in his own deliverance,” (The Oration, Appendix) Douglass believed that this was not enough.
“The mere act of breaking the negro’s chains was the act of Abraham Lincoln, and is beautifully expressed in this monument. But the act by which the negro was made a citizen of the United States and invested with the elective franchise was preeminently the act of President U. S. Grant, and this is nowhere seen in the Lincoln 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. There is room in Lincoln park for another monument, and I throw out this suggestion to the end that it may be taken up and acted upon.”Frederick Douglass
So get this: not only did Frederick Douglass have an issue with the Freedmen’s Memorial itself, he also believed that Ulysses S. Grant ought to receive more recognition for his contributions in helping Blacks. What this can show us at the very least is that history is more complicated and nuanced than we think. Annette Gordon-Reed, professor of history and the Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History at Harvard Law School, recently did a Q&A for the Harvard Gazette concerning Confederate statues, which I think could be relevant here for Lincoln. In response to a question from Harvard staff writer Colleen Walsh concerning the statues of the Founding Fathers, Gordon-Reed said that “there is an important difference between helping to create the United States and trying to destroy it.”
“No one puts a monument up to Washington or Jefferson to promote slavery. The monuments go up because, without Washington, there likely would not have been an American nation. They put up monuments to T. J. because of the Declaration of Independence, which every group has used to make their place in American society. Or they go up because of T. J.’s views on separation of church and state and other values that we hold dear. I think on these two, Washington and Jefferson, in particular, you take the bitter with sweet. The main duty is not to hide the bitter parts.”Annette Gordon-Reed
I think the same sort of reasoning can apply to Lincoln. No one puts a monument up to Lincoln to promote slavery. The monuments go up because, without Lincoln, there likely would not have been an emancipation of the slaves or an United States comprising the South.
Though there may be some legitimate reasons for why the Freedmen’s Memorials could be taken down in Boston and Washington D. C., I personally believe that the millions of dollars spent on removing them and other monuments could be better allocated towards any of the following areas: education, social work, the development and sustenance of after school programs for children, or even law enforcement. The statues that I want to see torn down from America’s low-income neighborhoods are the statues of prevalent, predatory payday loan institutions that trap people into perpetual poverty. The statues that I want to see torn down in low-income areas are the statues of widespread drugs and alcohol. Have you ever questioned why alcohol is so ridiculously easy to get especially in low-income areas? And lastly, the statues that I want to see torn down in low-income areas are the statues of parentlessness and inefficiently administered schools. One can only hope.
“whitewashing of American history“– what I am referring to is the unintentional effect or the intentional cause whereby American history becomes representative of the views of the majority culture. The implication or result of this is that the predominant lens whereby I come to learn about Black history is filtered primarily through the lens of slavery–as though Black people only came to exist after being brought here to America.
You can follow the author of this article, Lawrence Simmons, on Twitter @Lawrenc34649141