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.