Memory  /  Retrieval

The Statue That Never Was

How a monument that championed black sacrifice in the name of emancipation was forgotten.

As Americans remove Confederate statues from the public landscape, and debate the symbolism of monuments such as Washington, D.C.’s Emancipation Statue, with its standing Lincoln and kneeling slave, it is instructive to reflect on the paths not taken. As modern scholarship on Civil War memory has noted, African Americans faced daunting obstacles in trying to establish their own public memorials in Jim Crow America. A poignant example is the statue conceived by the National Emancipation Monument Association in 1889. Its design was a striking inverse of the “kneeling slave” motif and a bold rebuttal of the idea that Lincoln bestowed emancipation as a gift. In this monument—which lived a brief evocative life in words and images, though it never took the form of granite and bronze—a black Civil War officer, André Cailloux, stood at the apex with white politicians arrayed at the base. The story of this project, and of its principal champion George W. Bryant, challenges us to reimagine how we remember and represent the Civil War.

The National Emancipation Monument was the brainchild of a group of African Americans in Springfield, Illinois, led by Republican ward leader and grocer N.B. Smallwood. With the help of a local architectural firm and in consultation with some prominent Republican politicians they devised a design in which a 74-foot plinth (with that number illustrating the number of years, from 1789 to 1863, that the American republic had condoned slavery) would be topped by a giant bronze statue of a black Union soldier. The obelisk’s base would be adorned by smaller statues of eight heroes in the emancipation story: President Abraham Lincoln; white abolitionists Charles Sumner, John Brown, Wendell Phillips, Owen Lovejoy, and William Lloyd Garrison; the iconic black leader Frederick Douglass, and the pioneering black politician Robert Brown Elliott, who served in South Carolina’s Reconstruction-era legislature. The obelisk itself would be inscribed, the Illinois State Journal noted, with “dates and historical incidents connected with the slavery of the colored race in North America.” The project’s progenitors, who formed a corporation called the National Emancipation Monument Association, planned to raise most of the total estimated cost of the monument—$150,000--through donations from black churches and lodges and individual subscriptions. They hoped too to secure some support from the state of Illinois.

Early press coverage of the association’s fundraising efforts for the project emphasized the theme of black gratitude to white deliverers: as the New York Tribune noted in a March 1889 article entitled “Grateful Freedmen,” it was “peculiarly appropriate” that Springfield blacks should “build a monument to the memory of Lincoln, Seward, Sumner, Phillips and John Brown”; Seward was subbed in for Lovejoy in this account, and no mention was made of Douglass and Elliott. The figure standing atop the obelisk was typically characterized as a generic nameless “colored soldier,” who, as the Chicago Tribune put it, “left the menial work of the slavemasters and, acquainting himself with the practice of war, battled for the freedom of himself and loved ones.” Fundraising went slowly at first and the Illinois legislature rejected a bid for a $5000 state appropriation for the project on the grounds that not enough progress had been made from private funds.