© 2020
Real. Reliable. Texas Public Radio.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

History Professors Find Letter Showing Frederick Douglass' Opinion On Lincoln Statue

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Emancipation Memorial in Washington, D.C., depicts Abraham Lincoln standing over a freed slave on one knee with chains broken. Formerly enslaved people raised the money for the statue but had no say in its design.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

People who want it torn down say the memorial fails to take into account the work African Americans did to push for their freedom.

CHANG: Two historians and members of the Abraham Lincoln Institute took up the debate.

JOHN WHITE: I argued that the statue should be kept in place.

SCOTT SANDAGE: I think the statue is visually irredeemable.

CHANG: That's Scott Sandage from Carnegie Mellon University calling for it to come down and John White from Christopher Newport University saying it should stay.

KELLY: As historians, they wondered what abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass thought about the statue, so Sandage dug into newspaper archives, where he found a long-lost letter by Douglass about it.

CHANG: It was printed in 1876, just days after the statue went up. He sent it immediately to White.

WHITE: On the one hand, he calls it admirable. He says the sculptor Thomas Ball beautifully expresses the act of emancipation. On the other hand, Douglass shows very obvious misgivings about how the enslaved man was depicted. He said, the Negro here...

SANDAGE: ...Though rising, is still on his knees and nude. What I want to see before I die is a monument representing the Negro, not couchant on his knees like a four-footed animal, but erect on his feet like a man, unquote.

WHITE: And then he concluded the letter, there is room in Lincoln Park for another monument, and I throw out this suggestion at the end that it may be taken up and acted upon.

KELLY: With Douglass's words in mind, Professor Sandage says he can see a way to preserve it. Recast it, so to speak, with better pictures around it.

SANDAGE: If it were possible to save the gift that thousands of African American Civil War soldiers and other new citizens of color gave their money, their first wages in freedom - if it were possible to save that gift, I think it's worth talking about creating a whole new memorial that absorbs, swallows, so to speak, the old one.

CHANG: Failing that, though, professor Scott Sandage maintains the statue should come down.

(SOUNDBITE OF HARRY TAUSSIG'S "RONDO IN D (ON SOUTHERN THEMES)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.