By Edward Achorn
God bless Marcia Cole. She had the courage to show up, wearing nineteenth century garb, at a protest over a monument in Washington, D.C., that honors Abraham Lincoln for his role in emancipating four million enslaved Americans.
Ms. Cole, a member of the African American Civil War Museum’s Female RE-Enactors of Distinction (FREED) program, spoke up for the ex-slaves who funded the statue.
The statue has been targeted for destruction or removal by the same forces that are trying to destroy or erase many symbols of American freedom and courage across the country. A copy in Boston is also at grave risk of being removed. Many of those determined to eradicate the ex-slaves’ tribute to Lincoln are white.
The argument being used against the statue is that it is racist, because the black man depicted is crouching while Lincoln is standing. But, of course, there is little or no effort by violent anarchists and those who want destroy America’s symbols to understand the history behind the monument.
Ms. Cole spoke up, above all, for Charlotte Scott, one of the freed slaves who helped raise the $17,000 needed for the monument honoring Lincoln. She believes Scott contributed the first five dollars, no small amount in those days.
“I understand there’s a big campaign trying to raise money to either take it down or mend it, and I say ‘no’ on behalf of Ms. Charlotte,” she said in an interview with WJLA. “People tend to think of that figure as being servile but on second look you will see something different, perhaps. That man is not kneeling on two knees with his head bowed. He is in the act of getting up. And his head is up, not bowed because he’s looking forward to a future of freedom.”
The chains on the figure have been snapped. The ex-slave appears to be strong, muscular and unbroken, looking up at Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which in the view of black Americans in the nineteenth century — and serious historians today — played a powerful role in ending slavery.
While white hecklers tried to shout her down, Ms. Cole told the crowd, “”I have made it my mission to protect that statue. We need light and not hate. Having civil minds.”
Reenactor Carolivia Herron spoke of her great grandmother, Olivia, who told her what it was like during the Civil War. Olivia was 12 years old when slavery ended in Virginia. “And I know she gave five dollars for this. In my heart I know it. I don’t have any proof.”
Ms. Herron spoke out against obliterating the past. “Things change,” she said. “Our perceptions of how things should be presented change. There’s an intelligent, acceptable, proud way to interpret this statue.
“We need not be ashamed of what we came from. Indeed, the people who should be ashamed are those who perpetuated [slavery], not those who were the victim of it.”
What a beautiful statement.
Several other black Americans — men and women — showed up in nineteenth century costumes to argue for preserving their history and respecting the wishes of ex-slaves. A Frederick Douglass reenactor read from Douglass’s stirring speech on April 14, 1876 in dedication of the monument. Some 25,000 people attended that 1876 event, including President Ulysses Grant.
“This statue is a part of African American history,” reeactor Lavonda Broadnax said. “This statue was paid for and conceived by black people.”
The unkindness of those who would destroy the ex-slaves’ monument was not only evident in their filthy language and threats of violence.
One young woman shamefully screamed in the face of an older black man, who calmly endured her completely unwarranted and cruel abuse.
There is more going on here than concern about a black man’s crouching position, I believe. I worry that some people who detest America do not want a memory of strong and brave ex-slaves who put up the first statue of Abraham Lincoln. Such a statue argues that blacks did not see themselves as perpetual victims of racism, but as a proud people rising up after 250 years of bondage.
It was encouraging to see these reenactors bravely stand up against the mob and argue for preserving black history. Indeed, it was one of the most encouraging things I have seen since this mindless and violent assault on American symbols began.
(Read Edward Achorn’s books about American history.)