A statue depicting a formerly enslaved man kneeling before President Abraham Lincoln was taken down from a Boston park on Tuesday after officials this summer voted unanimously for its removal.
The bronze statue, called “Emancipation Group,” had been a fixture of Park Square in downtown Boston since 1879, but has long courted criticism for its depiction of a freed man at the feet of Lincoln.
The statue is a replica of the Emancipation Memorial in Washington, a bronze statue intended to commemorate the Emancipation Proclamation, the executive order Lincoln signed that ended slavery in the Confederacy. They were designed by Thomas Ball, a Boston native.
In the statue, Lincoln holds the Emancipation Proclamation in his right hand. His left hovers above the shirtless back of Archer Alexander, a formerly enslaved Black man who joined the Union Army but was recaptured under the Fugitive Slave Act.
Frederick Douglass, who attended the dedication of the statue in Washington, expressed his disappointment in an 1876 letter to the editor of The National Republican.
“Admirable as is the monument by Mr. Ball in Lincoln park, it does not, as it seems to me, tell the whole truth, and perhaps no one monument could be made to tell the whole truth of any subject which it might be designed to illustrate,” he wrote.
“What I want to see before I die,” he continued, “is a monument representing the Negro, not couchant on his knees like a four-footed animal, but erect on his feet like a man.”
Though the funds for the original memorial were raised by formerly enslaved people, they did not have a say in its design. The replica was a gift to Boston from a local politician, according to the city.
Calls for the removal of statues like “Emancipation Group” and the Emancipation Memorial intensified over the summer after George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer sparked protests for racial justice across the country. Demonstrators rallied for the removal of public art installations that were seen by some as honoring racist historical figures.
Protesters in Richmond, Va., toppled a Jefferson Davis statue and threw one of Christopher Columbus in a lake. In St. Paul, Minn., a 10-foot bronze sculpture of Columbus came down outside the State Capitol when a group of protesters tied ropes around the statue’s neck and yanked it from its pedestal. In Portland, Ore., demonstrators protesting police killings knocked down a statue of Thomas Jefferson, a founding father who also enslaved more than 600 people.
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Reports of people toppling statues prompted President Trump to issue an executive order in June instructing law enforcement officials to punish those who damaged federal monuments or statues to the fullest extent of the law.
“Anarchists and left-wing extremists have sought to advance a fringe ideology that paints the United States of America as fundamentally unjust,” the order reads.
Some cities pre-emptively removed controversial statues before they could be torn down, or opened the floor for public debate.
Tory Bullock, a Boston actor and artist, created an online petition in June that called for the removal of “Emancipation Group.” It has since garnered more than 12,000 signatures.
“I’ve been watching this man on his knees since I was a kid,” Mr. Bullock, who is Black, wrote in the petition. “It’s supposed to represent freedom but instead represents us still beneath someone else. I would always ask myself ‘If he’s free why is he still on his knees?’ No kid should have to ask themselves that question anymore.”
In June, after hours of discussion and public forums, the Boston Art Commission voted unanimously to remove the statue, the city said.
“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,” Martin J. Walsh, the mayor of Boston, said in a statement at the time.
“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,” he said.
Mr. Bullock said he had heard through the grapevine that the statue would be removed on Tuesday morning. He arrived at Park Square early, hoping to catch a glimpse.
A handful of people had gathered by 8:30 a.m., he said in an interview. Some clapped and others reignited the debate over the statue’s merits, as workers used a crane to load the statue onto a flatbed truck. They strapped it down and drove away.
All that was left was an empty pedestal with an inscription that reads, “A race set free / and the country at peace / Lincoln / rests from his labors.”
“I feel relieved that it finally happened, because a lot of times when you’re Black and people say they’re going to do something to solve an issue that makes you feel uncomfortable, it’s kind of like, ‘I’ll wait to see the proof in the pudding,’” Mr. Bullock said.
The statue will be held in temporary storage as the city determines a “new publicly accessible location where it could be better explained,” the city said. Kristina McGeehan, a spokeswoman for the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture, said museums and historic sites interested in housing the statue were being asked to contact the city.
The city will also hold virtual panel discussions and display art installations that examine and reimagine cultural symbols, public art and history, the mayor said in a statement, citing the thousands of Bostonians who had weighed in on the issue.
“We were the first to come up with a respectful way to handle something that could have been a fire starter racially,” Mr. Bullock said, noting that the statue’s original in Washington remained in place.
“Something that could have ended with people yelling at each other and breaking stuff actually ended up being a civil conversation between everybody in the city,” he said. “If Boston can do it, anybody can do it.”