On this bike ride I went to see The Emancipation Memorial in the heart of Lincoln Park. The largest urban park in the Capitol Hill neighborhood in northeast D.C., Lincoln Park is bounded by 11th Street on the west, 13th Street on the east, the westbound lanes of East Capitol Street on the North, and East Capitol Street’s eastbound lanes on the south (MAP). The park is situated one mile directly east of the United States Capitol Building, and four blocks northeast of Historic Eastern Market. It is one of the oldest parks in D.C., having been included in Pierre L’Enfant’s original 1791 design plan for the national capitol city. Lincoln Park is maintained by the National Park Service.
The Emancipation Memorial is also known as the Freedman’s Memorial or the Emancipation Group. It was also initially referred to as the “Lincoln Memorial” before the more prominent so-named memorial was built at the western end of the National Mall almost fifty years later. Designed and sculpted by Thomas Ball and erected in 1876, The Emancipation Memorial depicts President Abraham Lincoln in his role of “The Great Emancipator” freeing a male African American slave. Lincoln holds a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation in his right hand, resting on a plinth. The ex-slave is depicted crouching at the president’s feet, wearing only a loin cloth. The former slave’s broken shackles lie at his side.
The bronze statue is part of a group of statues entitled “The Civil War Monuments in Washington, D.C.,” which are spread out through much of the central and northwest areas of the city. They are listed as a group on the National Register of Historic Places.
The dedication ceremony for this “original Lincoln memorial” was held on April 14, 1876, the 11th anniversary of President Lincoln’s assassination. President Ulysses S. Grant attended the ceremony, as did members of his cabinet, and congressmen and senators. Frederick Douglass, the famed African-American social reformer, orator, writer and statesman, provided the keynote address to a crowd of approximately 25,000 who were in attendance on that day.
The monument has long been the subject of controversy and a source of mixed feelings. According to the National Park Service, the monument was paid for solely by freed slaves, primarily from African American Union veterans. However, despite being paid for by African Americans, some historians condemned it as paternalistic, portraying Lincoln as the savior of a race that couldn’t save itself. Critics claim that it ignores the active role blacks played in ending slavery, and perpetuates racist ideology because of the supplicant position of the freed slave. Others recognize that the imagery of the statue isn’t ideal, but embrace it nonetheless as part of history. They derive its meaning and significance from knowing that it meant something to the people of its time. Perhaps the various thoughts and feelings about The Emancipation Memorial are best summed up by Anise Jenkins, president of an advocacy group for D.C. statehood named “Stand Up! For Democracy.”
In commenting about the statue at a recent Emancipation Day ceremony in Lincoln Park, she stated, “It’s part of our history and it depends what you bring to it. 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 it from a modern perspective, but you can’t ignore its significance.”