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The Missed Opportunity of the Emancipation Monument

Our new entry on Archer Alexander, the formerly enslaved man who served as the model for the Emancipation Monument dedicated on the eleventh anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, touches on the controversy the monument generated, both when it was dedicated in 1876 and more recently when a replica of the monument was removed from downtown Boston. 

The monument was conceptualized and funded by newly freed Black Americans, mostly by several regiments of the U.S. Colored troops, but no African Americans had a hand in its design. The monument was criticized as soon as it was unveiled for featuring a Black man on one knee before Lincoln—in a posture that could be interpreted as either rising or crouching—with Lincoln standing over him delivering the gift of freedom as symbolized by the Emancipation Proclamation.

Frederick Douglass, who delivered the address at the dedication ceremony, wrote shortly afterward that the statue was “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 was “a monument representing the negro, not couchant on his knees like a four-footed animal, but erect on his feet like a man.”

But there was a proposed design for the monument that did show African Americans standing and provided a fuller representation of the Black emancipation journey. And it was designed by a woman. Harriet Hosmer is considered the first professional woman sculptor. By the time she was commissioned to design an emancipation monument, she had established a flourishing studio in Rome, where she associated with a colony of expatriate artists and writers there, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, George Eliot, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning. 

Hosmer became known for her neoclassical sculptures of mythological female figures that often subverted conventional narratives to show women’s dignity and power. “I honor every woman who has strength enough to step out of the beaten path when she feels her walk lies in another,” she said. 

The design that Hosmer proposed for the Emancipation Monument featured four figures of African Americans representing the emancipation journey—culminating with a free Black man serving as a Union soldier—surrounding Lincoln. It centered Black Americans as the authors of their own freedom story. But ultimately Hosmer’s design was deemed too expensive, and the commission went to Thomas Ball, who proposed a simpler design that gave prominence to Lincoln. 

Hosmer was a pioneer in more ways than one. She had a long-term romantic relationship with Louisa Caroline Baring, the Lady Ashburton, a wealthy, art-collecting widow, as well as dalliances with other women. Ultimately, her career was successful without the Emancipation Monument commission but it’s still interesting to consider what would have been had her more expansive design been built. Read about more pathbreaking women artists like Adèle Clark, a founding member of the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia, in Encyclopedia Virginia.

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