Lincoln Park Statues Are Connected to Huge Celebrities and So Much Else
This is the second in a series of articles that looks back on the history of Capitol Hill.
by Hilary Russell
Posted August 13, 2022
The Emancipation Memorial and the Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial in Lincoln Park share several features which make their relationship unique. One is their little-known connections to two of America’s most beloved and famous civil-rights icons. Harry Belafonte’s daughter, Shari, was the 8-year-old model for the statue of the young girl in the Bethune Memorial, according to Dorothy Height’s memoir, Open Wide the Freedom Gates. And DNA evidence recently established that Muhammad Ali was the direct descendant of Archer Alexander, whose portrait provided the model for the head of the statue of the emancipated man kneeling below Lincoln.
Who was Archer Alexander and how did he come to be featured in the Emancipation Memorial? His experience escaping slavery and risking his life assisting Union forces was chronicled in a book by T.S. Eliot’s grandfather, for whom he worked in St. Louis. Eliot reportedly chose the design of the Emancipation Memorial commissioned by the Western Sanitary Commission of Saint Louis and sent a photo of Alexander to sculptor Thomas Ball.
What else do both memorials have in common? The Emancipation Memorial incorporated the first life-sized statue of an African American man on public land in the United States, while the imposing Bethune statue represented two firsts: the first statue of an American woman of any race erected in DC and the first freestanding statue of an African American woman erected on public land in this country.
Both memorials were initiated by African American women. Charlotte Scott proposed the construction of a memorial to the martyred president and donated the first $5 she earned as a free woman to the cause. The National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) often cited Scott’s example during their 14-year campaign to raise $400,000 for the Bethune Memorial.
The two memorials, dedicated a century apart, are engaged in dialogue. The emancipation proclamation that Lincoln grasps and his extended arm are mirrored in Bethune’s handheld “legacy” scroll and in her outstretched hands. Both memorials conjure better lives for African Americans. The kneeling figure is about to rise, and vines circle the Emancipation Memorial’s obsolete whipping post. McLeod Bethune lifts her eyes toward the horizon and a brighter future for the generations who fulfill her legacy.
Granted, the Emancipation Memorial does not hold up its end. It exudes condescension and manifests the clichéd, passive image widely disseminated by the anti-slavery movement, though slightly amended with a doubled fist and broken manacle, instead of two shackled, beseeching hands. Notwithstanding, Lincoln Park (sometimes called Freedom Park) became an important site for DC emancipation celebrations and civil rights rallies. This history was reflected in an initial NCNW plan to incorporate a meeting place beneath the Bethune memorial, a scheme abandoned due to fund-raising challenges and National Park Service disapproval.
The dedications of both memorials attracted unique and enormous interracial crowds. At the 1876 dedication, President Ulysses Grant, most of his cabinet, and Supreme Court justices were among the 20,000 in attendance and were likely shocked by Frederick Douglass’s bold speech on Lincoln, the white man’s president. According to historian David Blight, it was one the greatest speeches of Douglass’s life: “No African American speaker had ever faced this kind of captive audience of the full government, and none would do so again until Barack Obama’s inauguration as president in 2009.” About 18,000 attended the 1974 dedication of the Bethune Memorial and heard movie stars Cicely Tyson read Bethune’s last will and testament and Roscoe Lee Brown recite resonant statements from Douglass’s 1876 speech, including, “We stand here today at the national center, to perform something like a national act.”
The memorials differ significantly with respect to the levels of public controversy they inspire. In 2020, a small group vowed to pull down and burn the Emancipation Memorial, and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton introduced legislation to put it in a museum. Within days of its 1876 dedication, Douglass wrote to a newspaper castigating the statue that, “though rising, is still on his knees and nude” and called for an additional statue in Lincoln Park that was “erect on his feet like a man.” Some writers endorsed this plea in 2020. Does this mean that the 17-foot-tall statue of an extraordinary African American woman doesn’t count?