Vandals vs. ex-slaves

By Edward Achorn

As expected, rioters have quickly moved on from tearing down statues of Christopher Columbus to those honoring such icons of freedom as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Ulysses Grant. Some radicals have even called for the elimination of depictions of Jesus.

Once authorities have begun permitting violent attacks on America’s symbols and history, it is hard to see where the destruction will end.

And, of course, the vandals have turned against Abraham Lincoln — the great president who saved this country and, in doing so, freed four million enslaved African Americans.

The rioters seem to lack any appreciation or understanding of history, and politicians working in tandem with them are egging them on.

Two tributes to Lincoln — the Emancipation Monument honoring Lincoln in Washington, D.C., and its copy in Boston — are under attack.

A man wearing a Black Lives Matter mask stood in front of the Washington statue of Lincoln on Tuesday and delivered a speech.

“We don’t want to tear down the statue today. We don’t want to do it today. We are going to be doing it on Thursday at 7 p.m., okay? … We are going to be out here; we want you to share it; we want you to follow us … we want you to get involved; we want you to donate in any way you can to help us get supplies to get all this done so we can do even bigger events in other areas.”

He reiterated: “Thursday at 7 p.m., we [are] tearing this mother(bleeper) down!”

Fortunately, Thursday night passed without the mob destroying the Emancipation Monument.

The monument is of historic significance. It was funded by ex-slaves who had little, but pooled their dollars and coins, collecting $17,000 to honor Lincoln.

District of Columbia Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton is trying to remove the statue as well, though she is taking a less violent approach.

Her professed opposition to the statue is that it shows Lincoln (a white man) standing and a newly liberated slave (a black man) crouching. That juxtaposition does strike many 21st century viewers, at first glimpse, as unpleasant if not worse. To many modern viewers, it suggests blacks’ subservience to whites.

But the sculpture uses this iconography to tell a story. Millions of African Americans were indeed kept down, held in chains. The black man in the sculpture has been freed by Lincoln. His chains are broken, and he is ready to rise and join the fight for his freedom. He stares resolutely at the Emancipation Proclamation in Lincoln’s hand, which is the agency of this incredible change in slaves’ condition after 250 years of bondage in America.

It defies logic that ex-slaves funded and proudly dedicated a monument to demean themselves. But Ms. Norton argues that they did.

“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,” she said.

She also thinks the statue gives Lincoln too much credit.

“Blacks too fought to end enslavement. That’s why I’m introducing a bill to move this statue to a museum.”

Needless to say, the ex-slaves who actually funded and installed this statue — and dedicated it with great pomp and pride — will get no vote on this, or evidently any consideration.

Many were soldiers in that war. They knew full well that the liberation of the slaves was not achieved only by white people. But they were big enough to see beyond themselves and express gratitude for the crucial role Abraham Lincoln played in securing their freedom.

I urge anyone who doubts this to read the extraordinary address by the great black leader Frederick Douglass — himself an ex-slave — at the dedication of this very monument on April 14, 1876. It is a moving statement about the pride and courage of African Americans, and it explains their reverence for Lincoln. I quote from it in my new book, Every Drop of Blood.

I think we owe it to the ex-slaves who put up that historic monument to listen.

Douglass, with characteristic boldness, described Lincoln as “preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men.” And he urged white Americans to build their own monuments to Lincoln, which would no doubt be far grander and costlier.

But he also urged whites to “despise not” this tribute by ex-slaves — “the humble offering we this day unveil to view; for while Abraham Lincoln saved you a country, he delivered us from a bondage, according to Jefferson, one hour of which was worse than ages of oppression your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose.”

He quoted from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address as evidence of the man’s fierce loathing of slavery.

Douglass explained that Lincoln’s assassination — 11 years earlier, to the day — had particularly touched African Americans. Because Lincoln was murdered for “his fidelity to union and liberty, he is doubly dear to us, and his memory will be precious forever.”

Again, referring to the monument, Douglass said: “We have done a good work for our race today. In doing honor to the memory of our friend and liberator, we have been doing highest honors to ourselves and those who come after us; we have been fastening ourselves to a name and fame imperishable and immortal; we have also been defending ourselves from a blighting scandal.

“When now it shall be said that the colored man is soulless, that he has no appreciation of benefits or benefactors; when the foul reproach of ingratitude is hurled at us, and it is attempted to scourge us beyond the range of human brotherhood, we may calmly point to the monument we have this day erected to the memory of Abraham Lincoln.”

Could this be why today’s radicals wish to destroy or hide away this monument? It does offer evidence that African Americans loved liberty above all. It shows that ex-slaves were grateful to a president who, though white, championed freedom for all. It undermines the narrative that blacks and whites can never really be brothers and sisters because of America’s “systemic racism.”

In a private letter after the dedication, Douglass expressed concern that the black figure was naked and that he was crouching. He called for future statues that would depict black Americans in poses that befitted their movement from slavery into full American citizenship and celebrated their achievements. Those statues did indeed follow.

But he did not propose tearing down this tribute to Lincoln.

(Read Edward Achorn’s books about American history.)

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