The Lincoln Memorial is the most famous monument to our 16th president, but it was not the first. That honor belongs to a statue in Lincoln Park, one mile dead east of the Capitol and about two miles from the better-known memorial.
The statue was unveiled April 14, 1876 — 11 years to the day after the president was shot and 46 years before the Lincoln Memorial was completed. It was entirely paid for by people who formerly had been enslaved.
One from Virginia, Charlotte Scott, heard that the president was killed and initiated the campaign with the first $5 she earned. A movement followed for a Freedmen’s Memorial Monument to the dead president, with many black veterans among the contributors. The 44th Congress appropriated $3,000 for its 10-foot-high pedestal.
The statue’s site east of the Capitol was a natural. The area had served as a camp for Federal troops during the Civil War, and Lincoln Hospital was built near it. In 1867, the vacant land was officially renamed Lincoln Square. It is now in the care of the National Park Service.
The unveiling of the statue was marked by a resounding speech from Frederick Douglass, whom Lincoln had come to know during the war. Indeed, Douglass was perhaps the one black man Lincoln got to know well. He had met Lincoln in 1862 and had helped recruit for the U.S. Colored Troops. Douglass’ son Lewis was a sergeant in the 54th Massachusetts, whose attack on Fort Wagner, S.C., was depicted in the movie “Glory.”
Over time, Lincoln became so impressed by Douglass that he invited Douglass to his second inaugural reception at the White House in March 1865. Douglass was the only black guest. The president went out of his way, to the chagrin of some, to shake Douglass’ hand and talk with him.
This developing acquaintance with Douglass might have been among the factors — Lincoln’s reaction to his reception by overjoyed blacks in Richmond after that city fell was another — that caused the president to consider equal rights and black citizenship near the end of the war.
That may have cost him his life. John Wilkes Booth at first plotted only a kidnapping. After Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender on April 9, Booth heard Lincoln say from the White House balcony that black veterans deserved equal rights. Booth said, “That means … citizenship. Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That’s the last speech he’ll ever make.”
Less than a week later, picking up mail at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, Booth heard that Lincoln was coming there that night and improvised a murder plot. Historians have often described Booth’s motive as revenge. But Booth had enlisted in the Richmond Grays militia unit in 1859 to witness the suppression of John Brown’s raid and had been present at his hanging. All this suggests another assassination motive — racism and Booth’s anger at Lincoln’s evolving struggle against it.
In his 1876 speech, Frederick Douglass addressed the controversy — even then, it was a controversy — of why it took Lincoln so long to embrace emancipation and, afterward, the separate issue of equal rights.
At Lincoln Park today, a few stray tour buses visit, not just to see the Lincoln statue, but also to see one of black educator Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955). Bethune-Cookman College, a historically black institution in Daytona Beach, Fla., is partly named after her.
Erected in 1974 by the National Council of Negro Women, the statue shows an aged Bethune, cane in one hand, handing with the other what looks like a scroll of diplomas to a young black girl and boy; around the pedestal, she is described as leaving them a “thirst for education,” “racial dignity” and “a desire to live harmoniously with rest of mankind.”
The statue was designed by Robert Berks with the same massive modernist energy of his Kennedy Center bust of John F. Kennedy. The memorial was the first on capital parkland for any American woman and only the second for any black. The first is 50 yards away, paired with Lincoln in what was called the Emancipation Statue.
The monument, sculpted in the high neoclassical style, got its name because it depicts Lincoln and a kneeling ex-slave. With his right hand, Lincoln holds the Emancipation Proclamation. With his left, he reaches down to the freed man, who gazes at him with gratitude.
The ex-slave figure was modeled on the last man captured under the Fugitive Slave Act, Alexander Archer. Despite symbolizing emancipation, some said and still say that the image implies white supremacy: Lincoln visually dominates.
Douglass took this kind of issue seriously. He addressed the crowd as “friends and fellow citizens,” key wording between 1865 and the Jim Crow era. President Grant was present, as were members of the Cabinet, senators and Supreme Court justices. There also was a strong black presence.
An African Methodist Episcopal bishop began the ceremonies with a prayer. The crowd was filled with blacks, including many who lived on Capitol Hill, called Jenkins Hill by blacks. The first regiment of U.S. Colored Troops had been recruited nearby. Douglass expressed some of their feelings by calling Lincoln “the martyr president” but noting, “he was pre-eminently the white man’s president, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men.”
Nevertheless, Douglass intoned, “We are here in the District of Columbia, here in the city of Washington, the most luminous point of American territory, a city recently transformed and made beautiful in its body and in its spirit; we are here in the place where the ablest and best men of the country are sent to devise the policy, enact the laws and shape the destiny of the Republic; we are here, with the stately pillars and majestic dome of the Capitol of the nation looking down upon us; we are here, with the broad earth freshly adorned with the foliage and flowers of spring for our church and all races, colors and conditions of men for our congregation — in a word, we are here to express, as best we may, by appropriate forms and ceremonies, our grateful sense of the vast, high, and pre-eminent services rendered to ourselves, to our race, to our country, and to the whole world by Abraham Lincoln.”
(“Whole world” is true: take, for example, our embassy in Moscow, flooded with notes of sympathy from the oppressed parents of many in Eastern Europe who would soon flock to America, starting in the 1880s; one letter hails Lincoln as a “messiah.”)
It is hard not to cite Douglass at length — his parallelism and soaring eloquence lift the soul like another speech, almost 100 years later, at the other Lincoln Memorial, by Martin Luther King. Douglass’ language echoes both the classical rhetoric of the 19th century and sermon traditions in black churches.
It was oratory — first revealed at the prompting of William Lloyd Garrison in an 1841 Nantucket, R.I., debate about public schooling for blacks — that elevated Douglass to prominence in the abolition movement.
Lincoln was slow to accept abolition, Douglass said, but steady. He recalled Jan. 1, 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, saying he would never “forget the outburst of joy and thanksgiving that rent the air.” As he recalled, he became “willing to allow the president all the latitude of time, phraseology, and every honorable device that statesmanship might require” to realize abolition.
More, Douglass said, it was wise that Lincoln made preserving the Union his prime goal. White America, even in the North, would not have fought the war if eliminating slavery were the main war aim.
“Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull and indifferent,” Douglass said. Then he added, “But measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical and determined.” He said all needed “a comprehensive view of Abraham Lincoln, and to make reasonable allowance for the circumstances of his position.”
As Douglass concluded, he summarized: “When, therefore, it shall be asked what we have to do with the memory of Abraham Lincoln, or what Abraham Lincoln had to do with us, the answer is ready, full and complete. Though he loved Caesar less than Rome, though the Union was more to him than our freedom or our future, under his wise and beneficent rule we saw ourselves gradually lifted from the depths of slavery to the heights of liberty and manhood. Under his wise and beneficent rule, we saw our brave sons and brothers laying off the rags of bondage and being clothed all over in the blue uniforms of the soldiers of the United States. … Though we waited long, we saw all this and more.”
Today, spring blossoms around Lincoln Park as Douglass said it did in 1876. In April, the center of the park is circled with the cherry blossoms so familiar in the rest of Washington. At dusk, legions of dog walkers take over. In daytime and after school, young families abound, both international and interracial. Stroller gridlock has become a weekend hazard. The occasional congressman even comes by with children for relief from the madding crowd. One on the House Education Committee asked me who Mary McLeod Bethune was. History surrounds everything, silently — but sometimes you can hear freedom ring.
Tom O’Brien is a Washington writer.