Alexander was born enslaved in Rockbridge County in the early nineteenth century. He was the son of Aleck and Chloe, who were enslaved by John Alexander of the Timber Ridge community near Lexington. Aleck Alexander was sold south to pay debts when Archer Alexander was a young man; Alexander never saw his father again. When John Alexander died in 1828, his son James Harvey Alexander inherited Alexander. Archer Alexander married Louisa, who was inherited by James Alexander’s wife, Nancy McCluer Alexander, from her father, John McCluer.
In 1829, James Alexander decided to join his cousins, the McCluers, the Campbells, and the Wilsons, in moving to Missouri. They left Virginia in August with at least two dozen enslaved people, including Alexander. His mother, Chloe, was left behind and died six months later. It was not the last separation that Alexander would endure. His newborn son, Wesley, was left behind near Louisville, apparently so that his wife could serve as a nursemaid to James Alexander’s newborn child.
The caravan arrived in Dardenne Prairie, Missouri, about forty miles west of St. Louis, early in October 1829. Alexander spent his first years in Missouri as an enslaved laborer. When James and Nancy Alexander died in the cholera epidemic that swept the Mississippi Valley in the early 1830s, both Archer and Louisa Alexander werefor the benefit of the Alexander orphans. By 1844, Alexander had been sold to David Kyle Pitman, one of the largest owners of enslaved people in the neighborhood. Louisa and seven of her children were later sold to a local merchant named James Naylor, who was a neighbor of Pitman’s.
The Civil War
During the Civil War, Missouri joined three other border states—Delaware, Maryland, and Kentucky—as slave states that remained in the Union. This pitted antislavery residents, many of whom were German immigrants, against proslavery forces who backed the Confederacy and had agitated for Missouri to secede from the Union. Such was the situation in December 1862, when Alexander, who was now owned by Richard Pitman, David Pitman’s son, became aware that several local Confederate sympathizers, including Pitman and Naylor, had stored guns and ammunition in a nearby icehouse, presumably to be used against Union troops. Understanding the gravity of the situation, Alexander warned the home guards known as Krekel’s Dutch. This courageous act put Alexander in danger. According to a report filed with the Union provost marshal, “those on whom he had informed . . . openly threatened to shoot him.”
William Greenleaf Eliot and His Home
With the home guard unable to protect him, Alexander had no choice but to leave. He fled to St. Louis, where he presented himself to Franklin Archibald Dick, the Union provost marshal, and requested an order of protection that would prevent him from being returned to Pitman. Dick granted Alexander a thirty-day order of protection on February 28, 1863. Alexander found work tending the garden plot of a Unitarian minister named William Greenleaf Eliot and his wife, Abigail Adams Cranch Eliot, who was a grandniece of Abigail Adams. The Eliots were strongly opposed to slavery, and William Eliot set about seeing if Pitman could be convinced to sell Alexander to him so that Eliot could emancipate him.
As Eliot was waiting for an answer, in March of 1863 three slave catchers sent by Alexander’s enslaver Pitman seized Alexander as he was working in Eliot’s garden and, as he later testified to the provost marshal,“threatened his life with pistols & daggers, cruelly beat him with clubs, knocked him down, stamped upon & handcuffed him, dragged him, to a wagon & carried him to jail.” Alexander found himself imprisoned in the city jail. When the provost marshall found out what happened, Alexander’s captors were arrested and put in jail for violating the protective order. Alexander was released, and a new protective order was signed “until the question of the loyalty or disloyalty” of Pitman could be established under the Confiscation Acts, which allowed the emancipation of enslaved persons belonging to those disloyal to the Union.
On April 15, 1863, Alexander testified against Pitman in court proceedings to determine whether he was a Confederate sympathizer. Alexander testified that Pitman was a “disloyal man, a secessionist” and had provided material aid to the Confederate cause. He requested that he be emancipated “in consideration of the known & active disloyalty of his master, [and] of the service which he has himself rendered to the Union cause.” The St. Louis superintendent of contrabands announced on September 24 that in recognition of his “important services to the United States military forces” and because of Pitman’s disloyalty, Alexander was “hereby declared to be an emancipated slave and a free man.”
Once he was a free man, Alexander worked to be reunited with his wife. He attempted to buy her from Naylor with money he had saved, but he refused. “I received your letter yesterday, and lost no time in asking Mr. Jim if he would sell me, and what he would take for me,”. “He flew at me, and said I would never get free only at the point of the [bayonet], and there was no use in my ever speaking to him any more about it. I don’t see how I can ever get away except you get soldiers to take me from the house, as he is watching me night and day.”
Undeterred, Alexander paid a farmer $20 to smuggle Louisa Alexander and their youngest two children in a wagon to St. Louis, where they lived safely until Missourion January 11, 1865.
The Emancipation Memorial
After the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865, a grief-stricken formerly enslaved woman named Charlotte Scott gave $5 to her former enslaver, William P. Rucker, aliving in Ohio, and asked his help in building a monument to “the best friend the colored people ever had.” Eventually more than $16,000 (about $260,000 today) was raised from free Blacks, largely from several regiments of the , the 58th, the 63rd, 70th, and the 71st Regiments of U.S.C.T. Infantry, as well as from the 6th U.S. Colored Artillery, stationed near Natchez, Mississippi.
Rucker enlisted James Yeatman, one of the commissioners of the Western Sanitary Commission, a volunteer war-relief group that was assisting formerly enslaved people, to help bring Scott’s vision to fruition. Eliot, who provided the impetus for the founding of the Western Sanitary Commission and was also one of its five commissioners, became involved in the project. He selected sculptor Thomas Ball after a more elaborate design by the pioneering woman sculptor Harriet Hosmer was deemed too expensive. When the commission saw Ball’s original design, which featured an enslaved man kneeling before Lincoln—a common motif of the abolitionist movement—it requested, according to Eliot, that a Black man be shown “helping break the chain that bound him.” Eliot thought that Alexander, who had liberated himself, would be an appropriate model and had pictures of him taken and sent to Ball. In the completed monument, Alexander is depicted as a young man with broken shackles on his wrists. He rests on one knee before Lincoln, in a posture that could be interpreted as rising or crouching. One of Lincoln’s hands rests on a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, while the other is outstretched over Alexander, as if bestowing the blessing of freedom.
The inscription on the plaque reads: “This monument was erected by the Western Sanitary Commission of Saint Louis Mo: With funds contributed solely by emancipated citizens of the United States declared free by his proclamation January 1 A.D. 1863. The first contribution of five dollars was made by Charlotte Scott. A freedwoman of Virginia being her first earnings in freedom and consecrated by her suggestion and request on the day she heard of President Lincoln’s death to build a monument to his memory.”
Despite this acknowledgment that the monument was conceptualized and funded by free Blacks, no African Americans had a hand in its design, which was approved by the all-white commissioners of the Western Sanitary Commission, who were steeped in nineteenth-century conceptions of white benevolence. Unlike the design proposed by Hosmer, which featured four figures of African Americans representing the emancipation journey—culminating with a free Black man serving as a Union soldier—the monument, wrote art historian Kirk Savage, failed “to imagine emancipation at the most fundamental level, in the language of the human body” (Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth Century America, 2007). Frederick Douglass, who delivered the address at the dedication ceremony on April 14, 1876, agreed. Just days after his speech, Douglass wrote a letter to thein which he called the statue “admirable” but limited in its ability to tell the whole story of Black emancipation. “The negro here, though rising, is still on his knees and nude,” he wrote. Douglass said that what he wanted to see before he died was “a monument representing the negro, not couchant on his knees like a four-footed animal, but erect on his feet like a man.”
Louisa Alexander died sometime after the conclusion of the Civil War. Alexander subsequently married a woman named Julia, whose last name is unknown. By 1870 the couple was living on a farm in Jefferson County with some of their children and grandchildren. Julia Alexander died in 1879 and was buried at the German Evangelical Cemetery, today’s St. Peter’s Cemetery, in Normandy, Missouri. A year later, Alexander became ill, was admitted to the hospital, and then moved near Eliot’s home in St. Louis. Alexander died on December 8, 1880, and was buried in a common grave in St. Peter’s Cemetery.