2019 - 2020 Modern Volume 13

Frederick Douglass and the Emancipation Memorial: Reexamining American History

By Miles Kaye

The murder of George Floyd sparked protests not only in America but around the world. Protestors took to the streets demanding justice. Many protestors toppled statues and chose to protest in front of statues. The focus on statues is an important gateway to discussing racism and contemporary issues in a historical context. Statues and popular culture often distort history and present a mythic account of the past populated by the good and the bad. The Emancipation Memorial has come under great scrutiny in response to the protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd. Protestors gathered around it demanding its removal. So why has this statue generated such controversy? After all, it is not a statue venerating a confederate soldier. The Statue depicts President Lincoln standing tall and upright bestowing freedom upon a slave knelt before him in gratitude. The monument was erected in 1876 and funded by former slaves. It became the first national monument to depict an African American. The story surrounding its unveiling is both fascinating and illuminating.

On April 14, 1876, the statue was unveiled in front of a large crowd that had grown all morning. In attendance were President Grant and many distinguished senators. As the statue was unveiled the crowd broke into applause and beneath etched onto the base of the statue was the word Emancipation. This ceremony could easily have turned into a triumphalist, patriotic day elevating Lincoln to the status of a god and turning the civil war into a moralistic crusade for freedom but for Frederick Douglass. Douglass, a slave who had burst his chains and championed abolitionism, in contrast spoke for the slave. He wanted to search for the truth, not a comforting patriotic myth. Douglass recounted the events of the Civil war and reminded his audience that Lincoln at the outset promised to respect slavery in the Southern States. Instead of a mythic Lincoln, Douglass gave a sober-minded assessment of a pragmatic politician who was evolving with the war. Famously Douglass declared that Lincoln was “pre-eminently the White man’s President”. This assessment by Douglass speaks to current issues today surrounding the monument and American history.

The statue demonstrates how memory, and imagined versions of the past, often displace history. The history of the civil war in popular culture is shorn of its moral ambiguity and complexity. Lincoln the man is replaced by Lincoln the God. Furthermore, it demonstrates how the White man in America has crafted the narrative about the history of the United States. The statue deprives slaves of agency. In this construction, the slave is the passive recipient of freedom won for him by the white man. It is a top-down history that ignores the enormous contributions of slaves themselves and abolitionists. Along with this, the statue presents the white man as a paternal figure guiding a child-like slave to freedom. This paternalism was pervasive at the time as many white Americans believed former slaves to be incapable of exercising freedoms such as the right to vote. Around the time a battle for citizenship and voting rights was being waged by former slaves. Thought the 14th and 15th amendments gave citizenship and voting rights to former slaves, in reality, the South was erecting barriers preventing the exercise of these rights. Former slaves were relegated to second class citizens. Once again they were standing in the white man’s shadow.

What makes the controversy about this statue remarkable is the fact it does not depict a confederate hero but Union hero. People in America, ordinary Americans, are now open to critically examining figures who have rightly been held up as heroes but have been sanitized and repackaged to tell a comforting tale. African Americans have traditionally been depicted as passive figures in American history deprived of agency. Perhaps the condescending paternalistic view expressed by the statue can be replaced by understanding and a society-wide critical reflection on American history. Perhaps now America will revaluate its history and in doing so create a more perfect union which addresses the legacy of slavery and white supremacy. History still exerts its influence on the United States and as William Faulkner once said “The past is never dead. It’s not even past”.

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David Blight