The Boston Art Commission voted unanimously tonight to remove the controversial Emancipation monument in Boston’s Park Square, which depicts President Abraham Lincoln standing over a crouching Black man newly liberated from slavery. The vote followed two nights of online public testimony.

“I am beyond overjoyed,” writes Boston artist Tory Bullock, who kicked off the public reevaluation of the monument by posting an online petition on June 11 seeking the statue’s removal.

“That image of a Black dude on his knees, does that make you feel powerful? Does that make you feel respected? Does that make you feel good?” Bullock said in a video that accompanied the launch of the petition. “Given my experience, it’s how a lot of White people actually view Black people.”

In less than two weeks, more than 12,000 people signed on. The issue attracted national press coverage–as well as comments by impeached President Donald Trump.

“I applaud the commission for not just agreeing to remove the statue but for creating a space for the city to share how they feel about it,” Bullock writes tonight. “Process is important and we all showed the ability to disagree with one another and not have it turn into a mudslinging match. I’m proud of Boston tonight.”

“As we continue our work to make Boston a more equitable and just city, it’s important that we look at the stories being told by the public art in all of our neighborhoods,” Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said in a press release. “After engaging in a public process, it’s clear that residents and visitors to Boston have been uncomfortable with this statue, and its reductive representation of the Black man’s role in the abolitionist movement. I fully support the Boston Art Commission’s decision for removal and thank them for their work.”

"Freedmen's Memorial Monument" in Boston's Park Square. (Photo courtesy Boston Public Library)
“Freedmen’s Memorial Monument” in Boston’s Park Square. (Photo courtesy Boston Public Library)

The “Freedmen’s Memorial Monument” or “Emancipation Group,” which has been in Park Square since 1879, is a copy of an 1876 Washington, D.C., monument funded entirely by African Americans to honor the assassinated President Abraham Lincoln and celebrate Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation during the Civil War, which freed Black Americans from slavery. (Read much more about the history here.) Objections to removing the statue have generally been that to remove it would dishonor the intentions of these Black ancestors.

But there also has long been questions about how much input the Black donors had to the design of the artwork and criticism of the monument’s symbolism, of the way Lincoln is portrayed standing in a suit waving a hand over a crouching Black man, clad only in a loincloth.

“He’s frozen in a space where he may be technically emancipated but he has not become a full citizen, he is not yet equal,” commission Vice Chair Ekua Holmes said as the board debated tonight. “I just can’t imagine any other story we would tell this way. I think the body language overwhelms any text we would add to the piece.”

Holmes recalled pulling her car over when she first saw the sculpture, shocked by its “degradation of a Black man.” She said, “It seemed like something that wouldn’t be in the Boston landscape.”

Tonight, the eight members of the city commission–Robert Freeman, Camilo Alvarez, Michale Cannizzo, Kara Elliott-Ortega, George Fifield, Lisa Tung, Ekua Holmes, Mark Pasnik–voted to remove “the bronze figurative elements of ‘The Emancipation Group’ pending:

• Engagement of an art conservator to document, recommend how the bronze statue is removed, supervise its removal, and placement into temporary storage;
• Commissioning of detailed documentation of the artwork into BAC archives, which may include photography of the statue in situ, drawings, and a 3D scan, as well as the history of the piece and the process that the BAC took in order to make this decision;
• Creation of a public event that will acknowledge the statue’s history and inform the public;
• Initiation of a process to determine how to re-contextualize the existing statute in a new publicly accessible setting; and
• Addition of temporary signage to the site to interpret the statue prior to its removal and permanent signage after the removal.”

While it seems the mayor of Boston has the authority to overrule commission decisions, the commission’s action seems to be able to move forward without requiring any further approvals by city bodies.

Tonight’s public testimony included words from Cedric Turner, who said he is a descendent of Archer Alexander, the real-life Black man depicted in the sculpture. Turner said the debate over the artwork “isn’t about the sculpture of Archer Alexander at all, it’s about the soul of America. … It should stay up for historical reasons, for the fact that his [Alexander’s] life story has been silent for so long, as has been so much of Black history.”

“The faith community believes the statue must come down,” Rev. Miniard Culpepper said later in the hearing. “I hadn’t noticed that the former slave still had the chains on his hands. … How can you be free from the bonds of slavery, the bonds of being taken from Africa, the bonds of picking cotton for years in the South, and you still have those chains on your hands? … We must take that statue down because in order to really be free we must take those chains off not just physically but emotionally.”

Commissioner Robert Freeman said that before the commission’s hearing on June 25, he had favored keeping the statue in place and perhaps installing another statue next to it to commemorate Black soldiers who fought in Civil War. He said he was particularly moved by hearing from parents talking about the discouraging impression the statue gave to their children–who saw their fathers or themselves in the crouching Black figure.

“Changing the inscription is not going to change the visual power of what art does,” Freeman said. “So I have changed my mind and I am in favor of removal of the statue to a safe place.”

“Freedmen’s Memorial Monument” or “Emancipation Group” in Boston’s Park Square, June 18, 2020. (© Greg Cook photo)
“Freedmen’s Memorial Monument” or “Emancipation Group” in Boston’s Park Square, June 18, 2020. (© Greg Cook photo)

• June 13, 2020: As Racist Monuments Come Down Across US, A Call To Remove Boston’s Emancipation Sculpture
• June 22, 2020: As 12K Sign Petition Saying Boston Emancipation Monument Should Go, City Schedules Hearing

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Categories: Art Public Art