The Emancipation Memorial in Boston (via Wikimedia Commons)

In a meeting today, July 1, the Boston Art Commission voted unanimously to remove the city’s Emancipation Memorial, which portrays an enslaved man kneeling at the feet of Abraham Lincoln.

The commission’s seven members reached their decision on Tuesday night after hearing arguments in favor of and against the controversial sculpture. The board tasked its staff with finding temporary storage for the sculpture and brainstorming suggested replacements. In addition, the commission said it will plan a public event to “acknowledge the statue’s history and inform the public.”

Created by Thomas Ball 1876 and erected in Boston in 1879, the statue depicts Lincoln holding the Emancipation Proclamation as he “frees” an enslaved Black man, who is said to be modeled on Archer Alexander. The freed man is depicted kneeling by the president’s feet with broken shackles on his wrists and ankles. It is one of three replicas of the original statue in Washington, DC, which is currently being challenged in a legislative proposal. An inscription at its base reads: “A race set free and the country at peace. Lincoln rests from his labors.”

A postcard of the memorial from 1907-1908 (via Wikimedia Commons/New York Public Library)

The commission’s decision came at the backdrop of growing calls to remove the sculpture from the city’s Park Square. An online petition against the sculpture, launched by Boston resident Tory Bullock, reached more 12,ooo signatures prior to the Tuesday’s vote.

“I’ve been watching this man on his knees since I was a kid,” Bullock wrote in the petition. “It’s supposed to represent freedom but instead represents us still beneath someone else. I would always ask myself ‘If he’s free why is he still on his knees?’ No kid should have to ask themselves that question anymore.”

Bullock added that his goal is “not to destroy” the sculpture but to replace it with “something that truly represents its original intent.”

“What I heard today is that it hurts to look at this piece,” said the commission’s vice-chair and artist Ekua Holmes. “And I feel like on the Boston landscape we should not have works that bring shame to any group of people that are citizens, not just of Boston, but of the United States.”

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...

7 replies on “Boston Will Remove Statue of Enslaved Man Kneeling at Feet of Abraham Lincoln”

  1. It is certainly true “we should not have works that bring shame to any group of people.” Who could disagree? And to the extent that this statue wold do that I am sympathetic regarding its removal.

    And now comes the part that we have all come to wait for following such an introductory statement. But . . . while I do not mean it to be a rebuttal to anyone’s feelings, interpretation, or response to the statue, I would like to offer my personal interpretation/response. (My feelings are irrelevant, as I do not have a voice in Boston.)

    First off, I see a white man (Abraham Lincoln) holding a scroll with one hand while holding the other hand in a manner that is not threatening, but rather, with a finger pointing to the future, one in which a black man is free and no longer enslaved.

    Second, I see a black man whose chains of slavery are broken. I see him looking up, as no slave would dare to do in the presence of his master. I do *not* see a man who is kneeling. He looks to me like someone who is about to stand up, someone who *has* been enslaved, and is about to feel the first grasp of his freedom. His clenched fist indicates this, as well as his determination (notice that it, too, is bent, pointing upwards).

    Third, if this statue were about an oppressed/enslaved man – and by extension, an oppressed/enslaved people – I don’t think it would be entitled, EMANCIPATION. For all the thought, effort, and what I see as symbolism that must have gone into the original sculpture, it’s hard to imagine that there was any sort of cynical or mean-spirited intent in what it represents.

    And finally, let us read the statement on the plinth.


    *This*, for me, *is* disturbing. I don’t know if it was a part of the original intention of the monument, or if it was added sometime later. I can resonate with the first line – the implied guilt of a nation which has endorsed the enslavement of one human being by another. I can even understand the second line’s reflection on a bitter war that had ended but a decade before the Emancipation. But then, the turn from the theme of EMANCIPATION to the praise of LINCOLN dilutes all of the rest of it.

    If I were to protest, I would be demanding that those four lines be removed.

    1. Mai Rafner – the reason for the creation of the original statue on April 14, 1876 by former slaves was to honor the role of Abraham Lincoln in fighting and sacrificing for their freedom. The original, in Washington DC, was dedicated by abolitionist Frederick Douglass on the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, 11 years earlier, on April 14, 1865. Douglass and the black human beings formerly held in slavery wanted to do something to remember Abraham Lincoln’s sacrifice all the way to being murdered, and make sure that he was not forgotten. That is why it focuses on Abraham Lincoln. I have a copy of the April 14, 1876 speech by Frederick Douglass about this monument. I believe those who would take the time and read it, would pause, and see the situation in an entirely different perspective. But history is simply being paved over today, and the point of why this exists is totally and completely lost and misunderstood.

        1. A statue of Frederick Douglass has been pulled down, too. We are living in the Twilight Zone.

      1. Thank you for pointing that out. There is a movement among some African American historians and others who actually try to understand the past to preserve the statue and give it proper context.

  2. What’s interesting is Lincoln himself would have disapproved of the statue. On April 4, 1865, two days after Confederate forces evacuated Richmond, Lincoln and a group of aides and bodyguards visited the ruins. He was instantly recognized and crowds of jubilant slaves surrounded him. Some bowed down to kiss his feet and the hem of his trousers. “Don’t kneel to me”, he said. “That’s not right. You must kneel to God only and thank him for the liberty you will afterward enjoy.”

    1. Well, that is very interesting in this day of “taking a knee” that is not to “God only.”

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