Two recent articles have come to my attention that will be of definite interest to Civil War Emancipation readers.
In the first, Kate Masur published a piece in Disunion in the New York Times that is a nice complement to my own recent post on the advent of emancipation in Washington, D.C., on April 16, 1862. Masur does an excellent job of describing the larger significance of an event that might be dismissed because it only involved about 3,000 slaves and is miniscule compared to the scale of the emancipation to come. She describes the D.C. emancipation act as ”a step heralded by abolitionists [at the time] across the country. Never before had Congress passed a measure designed to destroy slavery in a place where it was already entrenched.“
Besides Masur’s eloquent phrasing of the historical significance of this event, and her astute discussion of the legislative origins of D.C. emancipation and provisions of the law ending slavery in Washington, D.C., what I found especially interesting in Masur’s article, is her explanation of the unsuccessful 1849 bill to end slavery in the District of Columbia that Abraham Lincoln had introduced in the House of Representatives during his single term in the U.S. Congress. Kate Masur writes:
As a congressman in 1849, he had drafted legislation for emancipation in the District of Columbia that would be gradual, voluntary and compensated. Adults would remain enslaved, but beginning in 1850 all children born to enslaved mothers would be free and subject to apprenticeship to their owners. Slave owners would be compensated at market value for those liberated. And the gradual emancipation law would only go into effect if the voters of the District of Columbia approved it. Lincoln believed Congress had the power to enact abolition in the capital without voters’ consent, he reiterated in his debates with Stephen Douglas, but he did not think it desirable to do so.
Clearly, Washington, D.C., emancipation meant something special to Abraham Lincoln, as it represented the achievement of a legislative goal from when he was a young congressman. While he would rather have had emancipation there take place gradually instead of immediately and with the consent of the District of Columbia’s voters, he signed the Compensated Emancipation Act, as it later came to be known, not only because it contained provisions for the compensation of slaveholders and emigration of freed District slaves, but also because it would once-and-all end the blot of slavery from the nation’s capital.
The second article of interest comes from last Sunday’s Washington Post. Written by Post staff reporter Joe Heim, it is entitled “On Emancipation Day in D.C., Two Memorials Tell Very Different Stories.” In the story, Heim compares two different memorials in Washington, D.C., dealing with African Americans and the Civil War. The first being the Emancipation Memorial in Lincoln Park on Capitol Hill, dedicated in 1876. The second being the African American Civil War Memorial at 1925 Vermont Avenue in the U Street Corridor, dedicated in 1998. Here are pictures of them.
Emancipation Memorial, Lincoln Park (1876)
African American Civil War Memorial, U Street Corridor (1998)
The basic point of Joe Heim’s article is although both memorials commemorate African Americans in the Civil War and in both cases largely were financed by the black community, they have very different messages and reflect the different conditions of African Americans at the time they were built. 1876′s Emancipation Memorial, although paid for with the contributions of former slaves, had its design and construction overseen by an all-white committee and executed by a white sculptor. Heim writes:
Some critics felt the statue was paternalistic, that it ignored the active role blacks played in ending slavery. An alternate proposal for the memorial depicted a statue of Lincoln as well as statues of black Union soldiers wearing uniforms and bearing rifles. That option was considered too expensive.
So, in other words, the 1876 memorial, built at the end of Reconstruction, reflected a white society that just as soon would forget about slavery, and when they did remember it, wanted to depict themselves as benevolently granting the slaves their freedom–hence a standing President Lincoln reaching out to a kneeling slave. White Americans even then were forgetting the active role played by slaves in their own liberation.
Heim’s also discusses the ambivalent feeling of African Americans in Washington, D.C. about the memorial in Lincoln Park. He writes:
“I was attracted to it because it was the only monument paid for by former slaves,” says Loretta Carter Hanes, the 85-year-old educator and historian who was instrumental in leading the movement that created Emancipation Day as a holiday in the District in 2005. “The statue is something that is of that time and that place, but we need to study it as part of our history. We owe it to [our ancestors].”
“It may seem outdated and it may seem subservient, but no one can ignore its historical significance,” Washington historian and writer C.R. Gibbs told the small group of activists, onlookers and reporters in attendance. “It meant something to the people of its time and if it meant something to them, it means something to us.”
“It’s part of our history and it depends what you bring to it,” Jenkins says. “If you’re ashamed of our history of slavery, then that’s what you bring to it. But we have to be honest. Enslaved people loved Abraham Lincoln. They called him Father Abraham. You can question [the statue] from a modern perspective, but you can’t ignore its significance.”
The 1998 memorial, designed and executed by African-American sculptor, Ed Hamilton, well captures the active role played by African Americans in the Civil War, especially the black men that joined the Union Army and Navy. As Heim writes:
The focal point of this late 20th-century memorial is a statue bearing the images of three black Union infantrymen and one black Union sailor. All four men are standing. The looks on their faces are determined, full of purpose. The soldiers carry guns. There is nothing meek about it. An inscription reads: Civil War to Civil Rights and Beyond. Two messages are clear: Blacks fought for their freedom; that work is not yet finished.
In addition to Hamilton’s stirring sculpture, the memorial is surrounded by panels bearing the names of the over 178,000 black men that served in the Union Army. The last touch reflects a late 20th-century tradition, began at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, of acknowledging individually the persons being memorialized even when they were numerous. And nowhere in this memorial is President Lincoln granting freedom to anyone. African Americans clearly are depicted as having earned their freedom, not having it given to them as a gift. The 1998 memorial very much reflects the changed status of African Americans over the 122 years since the first memorial, and changes in the way Americans perceive emancipation over that same period.