Rushing: Keep ‘Emancipation’ Statue with Lincoln in Back Bay

A Back Bay statue from the late 1800s celebrating Emancipation is on the hot seat once again in its long history, with hundreds calling for its removal immediately due to the awkward imagery, but former state representative and long-time historian Byron Rushing is calling for the statue to remain.

The statue issue came to light this time when activist and educator Tory Bullock put up an online petition to call for it to be removed. The statue, done by famous sculptor Thomas Ball, shows a freed slave kneeling and appearing subservient to Lincoln rather than free.

The issue has garnered a great deal of attention lately, and Mayor Martin Walsh has suggested it be recommissioned and a new statue put up that has more appropriate imagery. Meetings are now scheduled at the Boston Arts Commission on June 25 and 30 to discuss the statue.

The statue is actually a copy of the original, which is housed in Washington, D.C., and was paid for in the 1870s by freed slaves.

Rushing said it isn’t the first time the statue has been controversial and won’t be the last time, but should be left up because of the conversation it evokes and the intention of its creators – both black and white.

“The bottom line about the Emancipation Group is this has been controversial since the beginning,” he said. “If you add up all the years it’s been up, black people have liked it longer than they have disliked it. It was an act to honor emancipation and Lincoln and black and white people.”

Rushing said the story of the statue is important because it was originally paid for by freed men who raised money on their own and, relying on their white abolitionist friends to help them find a sculptor, were able to make it happen only a few years after being freed.

“We’re in the period where everyone doesn’t like it,” he said. “The question for me is if it is an important story to talk about. If the controversy is important to talk about, then talk about it and tell the story around it. Tell the story of the controversy. It doesn’t matter what it looks like. I’d keep it up with the understanding that African Americans who had been freed only a few years before were able to raise $16,000. What do you do with that part of the story? Should that be thrown away? No. I don’t think that can be told when it is in any other place. It would be a disgrace to put it in storage.”

Rushing said the story of it in Boston is also quite significant because the whole square with the granite curbs and an iron fence were created just for the statue. It meant a great deal to black people and white people at the time. He said despite the poor imagery, and the racist views of its creator Thomas Ball (who in his diary did not want a black model to come into his studio), it is the intention of the piece that matters – and Rushing believes the intention was good.

“It’s not like a Confederate monument put up in the 1930s to reinforce racism,” he said. “Can a totally dispised statue have a good intention? I think one should focus on intention and it’s a wonderful story. It’s the story of many freed Africans and their allies…It is complicated. No doubt about it, it is controversial.”

It isn’t the first time, either, that Rushing said he has come to the aid of the Emancipation statue in the Back Bay. Many years ago, the late Bruce Bolling was on the City Council and he and a group of constituents called for it to be taken down. After a long talk with Bolling, Rushing said he was able to calm things down, and the statue was left in place.

What needs to be done better, he said, is to interpret it better. He said other cities, like Atlanta, take advantage of technology to interpret some of their monuments and statues – and it is quite helpful. The Emancipation Statue in Boston could likely use the same treatment, he said. Few know the story of it being about the history of white and black people.

That could be explained.

Meanwhile, those who are interested could be directed to another view of Emancipation through the eyes of a black female sculptor only a few blocks away in the South End. There, the statue ‘Spirit of Emancipation’ by Meta Warwick Fuller is on display in Tubman Park. Created in 1913 by the artist for the 50th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, it was only a plaster piece until friends of the park were able to cast it in bronze and display it.

Side by side, the pieces tell two very different stories about the freedom of Africans from slavery – one by a white man celebrating the history of blacks and whites and Lincoln’s role, and another by a black woman celebrating the release of her people and all those that came before.

“With a lot of these statues you tell the whole story and then decide, but you don’t act on one person or 100 people who don’t like the design,” he said.

Much will be said about the Emancipation Group statue in the Back Bay over the coming weeks at the Boston Arts Commission, and perhaps the long complicated history of it will also be part of that.

8 comments for “Rushing: Keep ‘Emancipation’ Statue with Lincoln in Back Bay

  1. Brad Parker
    June 25, 2020 at 2:48 pm

    I stand with Tory Bullock for removal. We are in a new era — in need of new attitudes, new institutions, and new monuments.

  2. ralph
    June 25, 2020 at 4:08 pm

    At times the statue has been in a very hostile environment. I think for a while the base came directly out of the asphalt and was surrounded by traffic whizzing in all directions. The interpretation is confusing in several ways Is the kneeling figure praying or just beginning to stand-up? What was the intended relationship between Lincoln and the “emancipated figure Lincoln is portrayed in such an important and dominant manner that it is easy for the observer to worship him. But the emancipated figure is not oriented toward Lincoln leaving the composition to be two worlds with ambiguous relationship. .

  3. Curtis P Seborowski
    June 25, 2020 at 4:19 pm

    Monuments reflect our history and are under attack. As a grown up who respects history and these monuments, it is very concerning about any removal!
    Why erase historic figures and memorials. How can society learn from the past, whether good or bad?
    These acts are deplorable and should be discouraged.
    Curtis Seborowski

  4. Dan d’Heilly
    June 25, 2020 at 5:26 pm

    Thoughtful article – glad to know the rest of the story. Thanks to Byron for stepping into the breach.

  5. Kevin Hepner
    June 25, 2020 at 6:04 pm

    How about designing and installing a history board next to the statue explaining it’s history from two points of view.

  6. wright gregson
    June 27, 2020 at 4:09 am

    wright gregson
    June 27, 2020 at 4:08 am
    Your comment is awaiting moderation.
    I have been aware of the sculpture group since the 1970s when i worked in the Park
    Square Building which is very close to the sculpture. As Byron said, there has long been a discussion about this piece. I understand his argument suggesting the monument stay in place with informative narration at the base. There are many people and works of art, etc, that are controversial, but, to me, it sometimes comes down to the intention and the whole-picture consideration that should be the deciding factor. Sometimes good intentions leave behind a sanitized, too smooth picture of an issue. The “roughness” can cause more thought to be had.
    (p.s. At that time, Byron Rushing was in the state house and for completely unrelated reasons, i had some brief, pleasant interactions with him–I am sure he has no recollection for this.)

  7. Marguerite Krupp
    June 27, 2020 at 8:42 pm

    I totally agree with Mr. Rushing., though I, too, was horrified when I first saw it. I didn’t know that it had been initiated and paid for by freed slaves. That in itself is impressive. Losing a statue like this would mean losing a teachable moment. The back story needs to be told!

    I didn’t know about the “Spirit of Emancipation” sculpture in Tubman Park. Perhaps both statues could have a plaque uniting the two and telling their background stories. The people of Boston deserve no less. Thank you, Mr. Rushing

  8. Stephen English
    July 1, 2020 at 7:08 am

    When you remove the statue because a few do not like it, you are now allowing a small minority of people to dictate what we think and do. That, is not what this country is founded on. If this is because of being offensive, Why did Mathias Baldwin’s statue get defaced? It is not a matter of history any more, just a matter of seeing whatever a small group can dictate to the general population.

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