Missing the Mark: Emancipation Statue in Back Bay Likely to Be Re-Commissioned

A statue of Abraham Lincoln and a newly-freed slave – titled ‘Emancipation’ – has hit the ire of many in the neighborhood and throughout Boston over the last week as being outdated and insulting.

Though the statue has been repeatedly criticized for years – as has its original, twin statue in Washington, D.C., – most recently Activist Tory Bullock began the current campaign to get it removed and replaced.

“My name is Tory Bullock and I’ve been watching this man on his knees since I was a kid,” he wrote in an online petition. “It’s supposed to represent freedom but instead represents us still beneath someone else. I would always ask myself, ‘If he’s free why is he still on his knees?’ No kid should have to ask themselves that question anymore.”

The statue depicts Abraham Lincoln standing at a lectern and apparently having signed the Emancipation Proclamation. His hand sticks out over the head over a black slave who has seemingly just been broken from his chains – though he is still kneeling, scantily clothed and appearing in a position of subservience to Lincoln. The imagery in modern times – and also in its contemporary time – leaves a lot to be desired.

Bullocks’ petition has gained quite a bit of steam and once more brought attention to the Park Plaza statue.

This week, Mayor Martin Walsh told the Sun he is willing to remove the statue and he’s willing to engage in a dialogue with the community about the future of the piece in Boston.

However, he also said he is interested in potentially recommissioning the statue into one that recognizes equality in a better way than the Lincoln piece. The memorial falls under the Arts Commission’s purview, so there will be a process that needs to play out in that body before any action can be taken.

The Mayor’s Office said they are looking into what needs to be done to remove and recommission the statue, if that’s what the community deems it wants.

NABB President Martyn Roetter said the organization takes no position on statues being removed in or near the Back Bay.

“Erecting statues of prominent individuals and removing or destroying or defacing them and other memorials reflect very strong differences and shifts in opinion and powerful emotions over the years, from Oxford and London to Vienna and former Soviet bloc countries, as well as the U.S., Spain, India and elsewhere,” he said.

The statue actually has a very interesting history, and has been criticized since the day it was put into place in Washington, D.C. – with many noting it was well-intentioned but missed the mark.

The piece was done by Thomas Ball – the well-known sculptor from Charlestown who also did Washington on his horse in the Public Gardens. It was done in 1876, and paid for by freemen who wanted to celebrate the emancipation moment in Washington, D.C. That is where the original monument was placed and celebrated – with Frederick Douglass providing the oratory on the day it was unveiled. According to an art history critique by Peter Browne some years ago, Douglass’s official words were complimentary and he praised the effort of freemen to raise the money and pay for such a prominent piece. Others in attendance said later that Douglass off-script said he did not like the attitude of the piece, with the black man on his knees not evoking a posture of freedom.

In that time, according to Browne, the image of the black man in that position would have been well known as it was the famous logo of the American Anti-Slavery Society – expect the man was in chain and asking ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’ Many believe Ball chose the imagery based on that notion, but with the chains broken.

No one will know, but art historians have also criticized the statue both in Washington, D.C., and in Boston. Browne’s piece quotes art historian Kirk Savage as saying it was, “a failure to imagine emancipation at the most fundamental level, in the language of the human body and its interaction with other bodies.”

A copy of Ball’s Washington, D.C., statue came to Boston in 1879 by efforts from Moses Kimball, an elected official who had once been a partner of P.T. Barnum and operated the Boston Museum of curiosities on Tremont Street. It was placed at its current location in Park Plaza when the former Boston and Providence Railroad Station would have been behind it, though that is now gone.

Browne’s piece argued that there needed to be some reinterpretation of the statue, including having it surrounded by more positive statues of leaders like Lewis and Harriet Hayden.

Or, perhaps, it might just be removed and re-commissioned.

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