^ Lincoln, on April 1, 1865, to the freed slaves of Richmond, Virginia, who knelt to praise him : “do not kneel to me. Kneel only to God.”


A post on facebook says that 7,000 people have signed a petition to remove the sculpture by which Boston has, since 1876, memorialized the visit by President Lincoln to the city of Richmond, Virginia, after its capture in the Civil War, and specifically the moment when he was greeted by the City’s freed slaves, who, so the telling has it, knelt at his feet to praise him. He turned to them and said, “do not kneel to me. Kneel only to God.”

Ten days after that visit, Lincoln was assassinated by a Confederate sympathizer.

It is sad that, at this time when black lives matter supporters are asking that the Civil Rights successes of my generation be supplemented by full social respect and dignity for Black Americans, that 7,000 people can be found to wish the Richmond visit of Lincoln, and his message of uplift, be removed. Against this expression of reluctance to pursue full respect and equality, and against President Lincoln’s great labors” (as the plaque on the sculpture puts it), I would now quote from the speech that Frederick Douglass himself gave at the sculpture’s first unveiling, in Washington DC, before its move to Boston, where Abolition bore its first fruits :

“…The sentiment that brings us here to-day (spoke Douglass) is one of the noblest that can stir and thrill the human heart. It has crowned and made glorious the high places of all civilized nations with the grandest and most enduring works of art, designed to illustrate the characters and perpetuate the memories of great public men. It is the sentiment which from year to year adorns with fragrant and beautiful flowers the graves of our loyal, brave, and patriotic soldiers who fell in defence of the Union and liberty. It is the sentiment of gratitude and appreciation, which often, in presence of many who hear me, has filled yonder heights of Arlington with the eloquence of eulogy and the sublime enthusiasm of poetry and song; a sentiment which can never die while the Republic lives.

“For the first time in the history of our people, and in the history of the whole American people, we join in this high worship, and march conspicuously in the line of this time-honored custom. First things are always interesting, and this is one of our first things. It is the first time that, in this form and manner, we have sought to do honor to an American great man, however deserving and illustrious. I commend the fact to notice; let it be told in every part of the Republic; let men of all parties and opinions hear it;

“let those who despise us, not less than those who respect us, know that now and here, in the spirit of liberty, loyalty, and gratitude, let it be known everywhere, and by everybody who takes an interest in human progress and in the amelioration of the condition of mankind, that, in the presence and with the approval of the members of the American House of Representatives, reflecting the general sentiment of the country; that in the presence of that august body, the American Senate, representing the highest intelligence and the calmest judgment of the country; in presence of the Supreme Court and Chief-Justice of the United States, to whose decisions we all patriotically bow;

“in the presence and under the steady eye of the honored and trusted President of the United States, with the members of his wise and patriotic Cabinet, we, the colored people, newly emancipated and rejoicing in our blood-bought freedom, near the close of the first century in the life of this Republic, have now and here unveiled, set apart, and dedicated a monument of enduring granite and bronze, in every line, feature, and figure of which the men of this generation may read, and those of after-coming generations may read, something of the exalted character and great works of Abraham Lincoln, the first martyr President of the United States…”

When Douglass spoke these words and many more — orations were often long, long, long in those days — the Civil War was barely eleven years gone; and the assassination of Lincoln was still fresh in everybody’s minds. In some respect the War itself was not yet over : for Federal troops still occupied South Carolina and Louisiana (and would not be removed until the end of the following year). Thus the Emancipation sculpture was not erected and dedicated as a memorial of bygones ; it was an act of protest (“agitation,” Douglass called it) against the continuation of secession hostility and was also — maybe even more importantly — a gauntlet thrown down to those who might oppose the great Civil Rights Acts of 1867 and 1875, the print still not dry upon the latter.

I would appeal now to the hearts of those who oppose this sculpture and all of its spirit of freedom and dignity for black Americans, to loosen their consciences and see that there is no longer any case for setting aside, or delaying, the deepest aspirations of Black Americans for full respect socially and as neighbors, friends, family and citizens.

A friend has suggested that we might erect a plaque on the sculpture’s base, explaining its significance — which was clear to the men of 1876 but maybe not clear 144 years later — and maybe quoting from Douglass’s speech. I second my friend’s suggestion. Let us march forward together in  the spirit of ultimate emancipation, so that President Lincoln can truly, finally, rest from his labors and so that the confidence expressed by Frederick Douglass on the original unveiling day be our guide.

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere






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