A creative imagining of the Emancipation Group statue
Get it out of storage, use it to tell Boston's story
IN THE SUMMER of 2021, I wrote an opinion piece for CommonWealth with suggestions on what to do with the city’s Emancipation Group statue, the one showing Abraham Lincoln with arm outstretched over a kneeling enslaved Black American that had been removed from Boston’s Park Square the year before.
It was the aftermath of the George Floyd killing and America was wrestling with what to do with monuments and statues across the country that portrayed only limited, and often prejudicial, snapshots of our nation’s complex racial history. In the case of sculptor Thomas Ball’s Emancipation Group statue (the original is in Washington, DC, and was dedicated with decidedly mixed views by Frederick Douglass in 1876), one wonders: does it portray a benevolent Lincoln conferring freedom on a subservient enslaved Black, or is the Black man at Lincoln’s feet with broken chains the agent of his own freedom as he rises to take his rightful place in American society?
In the absence of appropriate context, it’s hard to tell. That’s why I wrote in my CommonWealth piece that:
The Emancipation Group statue should remain in Boston as an integral part of our city’s conflicted and complicated racial legacy. I suggest it be housed in a new indoor location as part of the Museum of African American History on Boston’s Freedom Trail. To provide appropriate historical context, other exhibits with the statue could include a video (or hologram) re-enactment of Frederick Douglass’s painfully honest 1876 dedication speech, as well as graphic extracts from George Boutwell’s Senate report in 1876 on White supremacist violence in Mississippi. A plaque on the wall could bear the quote from the Black author James Baldwin, “People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.”
If ideas are needed, look no further than an exhibition at the Chazen Museum of Art in Madison, Wisconsin, that brought together artists, students, academics, and community members to imaginatively interpret such monuments in a modern context, as described in the article, “An Alternative to Removal,” in the New York Times of April 30.
Entitled “re-mancipation,” the exhibit was organized by artist Sanford Biggers of New York and museum director Amy Gilman and combines a variety of art forms and perspectives with which to stimulate discussion of the painful kaleidoscope of America’s race relations. A parallel exhibition, “Emancipation: The Unfinished Project of Liberation,” is on view at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas.This year is the 160th anniversary of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation that accelerated the process of abolishing almost 250 years of chattel slavery in the United States. There’s no better time to acknowledge both Boston’s role in facilitating the slave trade, and the positive contributions of Massachusetts figures such as Charles Sumner and George Boutwell in ending slavery, than by a creative imagining of Boston’s Emancipation Group statute. The imagining should involve artists, community leaders, students, and academics who must work to provoke and inspire us to keep striving for an equitable multi-racial society.
Jeffrey Boutwell is a Massachusetts native and author of Redeeming America’s Promise: George S. Boutwell and the Politics of Money, Race, and Power, forthcoming from W.W. Norton in 2024. He is a distant cousin of George S. Boutwell.