By Micha Green
AFRO D.C. Editor
mgreen@afro.com

The day before Juneteenth (June 19), which celebrates when the final slaves in Galveston, Texas learned of their freedom in 1865, At-large Council candidate Marcus Goodwin launched a campaign that is separate from his political goals; this crusade is for justice.  At a pre-Juneteenth press conference, Goodwin told this reporter he is leading a petition to remove the Emancipation Memorial at Lincoln Park in Capitol Hill.  A week later more than 5,400 people have joined in his mission to petition the U.S. National Park Service to eliminate the statue, which depicts a naked slave on his knees with broken chains looking up in adoration to President Abraham Lincoln.

“It’s time to take down monuments that memorialize the intended subservience of Black people in this country,” Goodwin wrote in a Change.org petition. “Confederate statues are the obvious example, but this statue in Washington, D.C. perpetuates the idea that we are beneath White people and should simply be grateful for the scraps that have been thrown our way.”

At-Large D.C. Council candidate Marcus Goodwin stands on the Emancipation Memorial, which he’s petitioning to be removed due to its racist undertones. (Courtesy Photo)

Also known as the Freedmen’s Memorial, the statue was paid for by free African Americans as a thank you to President Lincoln, who freed slaves in the District on April 16, 1862, prior to signing the Emancipation Proclamation in January of 1863.  

Although Black people solely paid for the monument, the organization managing the funds was a White-run, war relief agency based in St. Louis called the Western Sanity Commission, according to the National Park Service (NPS).  

Despite Black American dollars funding the project, a White man named Thomas Ball designed the statue and it was cast in Munich, Germany before being shipped to D.C. in 1876.   

“Although formerly enslaved Americans paid for this statue to be built in 1876, the design and sculpting process was done without their input, and it shows.  Understandably, they were only recently liberated from slavery and were grateful for any recognition of their freedom,” said D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who announced plans to issue legislation to remove the Emancipation Memorial.  “However, in his keynote address at the unveiling of this statue, Frederick Douglass also expressed his displeasure with the statue,” Norton noted, referring to the famous abolitionist and Washingtonian who famously spoke at the monument’s debut.

The White savior-ism depicted in the statue is why Norton, Goodwin, activists and leaders, are calling for its removal, particularly in a time of protests against racism and when other prejudice emblems are being eradicated.

“Because Lincoln Park is National Park Service (NPS) land, I will work with the NPS to see whether NPS has the authority to remove the statue without an act of Congress, and if so, we will seek its removal without a bill, Norton said. “This statue has been controversial from the start. It is time it was placed in a museum.”

In addition to Lincoln Park being NPS land, the Emancipation Memorial contributes to the Civil War Monuments of the National Register of Historic Places, thus making the monument itself a meaningful part of history.  

For African-American historians, the monument has too much history to be removed. 

“I am just learning about the crowds threatening to tear down the Freedmen’s Memorial in Lincoln Park.  This is a huge mistake.  They know not what they do with this one,” wrote David Blight, Yale University professor and author of 2019 Pulitzer winning {Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom}, in an email to famed historian and Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates that was shared with the {AFRO}. “It is not a Confederate monument.  You know the whole story. [Frederick Douglass’] second greatest speech and so on. Black folk raised the money. It has come to this,” he added.

“I recognize fully the racial limitations of the image, but I also understand its meaning as a memorial to the moment of the Emancipation Proclamation, which was understood by most people in the Black community in 1876 when the statue was erected and, in fact, this moment is still remembered and acknowledged by a great many of our people in our Watchnight Church Services on New Year’s Eve,” said Harvard University African American studies professor and Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) President Dr. Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham.

The ASALH president also noted the Emancipation Memorial’s relation to the Mary McLeod Bethune monument.  The Emancipation Memorial originally faced west, towards the Capitol, but was turned east in 1974 to face the recently built Bethune statue.

“I also find fascinating the later conscious changing of the position of the statue to face the statue of Mary McLeod Bethune. The two statues are arranged to be in conversation with one another.”

Despite the historicity of the statue depicting the former President, Goodwin noted that there’s already an Abraham Lincoln monument in the District- the Georgia White marble, 175-ton, 19-foot wide and tall Lincoln Memorial.

“While Abraham Lincoln was a monumental U.S. President, worthy of memorializing, he already has a national monument that doesn’t have degrading racial undertones,” Goodwin wrote.

Petitioner Jack Tongour wrote on Change.org, “Marcus makes a really good point. Honoring the act of emancipation is important, but unfortunately this statue does not deliver a message of true equality. We don’t need glorification of ‘White savior-ism.’ It’s should be in a museum not a park.”

Fencing and a barricade have now been placed around the statue to stop protestors from tearing it down.