WHEN IT WAS unveiled in Park Square in December 1879, the Emancipation Group statue of Abraham Lincoln standing over a kneeling ex-slave was described by The Boston Globe as representing the “most interesting, the most important and the most sublime event… in the history of the world.” The inscription at the base of the statue read, “a race set free and the country at peace.”
The reality on that cold December day in Boston, however, was that Black Americans were anything but free, and the country was not at peace. The Reconstruction period, with its promises of civil and legal protections for America’s Black citizens, was already dead.
In his 1876 dedication speech for the original Emancipation Group memorial in Washington, DC, Frederick Douglass warned how white opposition to federal government protection of Black voting rights and civil liberties was already making it easier to “scourge us beyond the range of human brotherhood.” That summer, Massachusetts Sen. George S. Boutwell chaired a special committee that produced a 2,000-page report on white supremacist violence during Mississippi’s 1875 state election campaign.
Today, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020, America is once again seeking to openly confront its deep divides of racial injustice and economic inequality. Central to these issues is how we as a society choose to memorialize the past. This includes the fate of hundreds of Confederate statues and other monuments to the “Lost Cause” of white supremacy, as well as tributes to prominent Americans who owned slaves, profited from the slave trade, or espoused “scientific racism” theories, such as famed naturalist Louis Agassiz of Harvard University.
In Boston, the Emancipation Group statue was removed from Park Square in December 2020 and put into storage pending a decision by the Boston Art Commission to relocate the monument to “a new publicly accessible location where its history and context can be better explained.” As of August 2021, no decision had yet been made on where to locate the statue, though some are suggesting that it be moved outside the city or even shipped out of state.
That would be a travesty. The Emancipation Group statue should remain in Boston as an integral part of our city’s conflicted and complicated racial legacy. I suggest it be housed in a new indoor location as part of the Museum of African American History on Boston’s Freedom Trail. To provide appropriate historical context, other exhibits with the statue could include a video (or hologram) re-enactment of Frederick Douglass’s painfully honest 1876 dedication speech, as well as graphic extracts from George Boutwell’s Senate report in 1876 on white supremacist violence in Mississippi. A plaque on the wall could bear the quote from the Black author James Baldwin, “People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.”
Viewed together, these exhibits would bring home how Reconstruction and its promise of equality was already dying in 1876 as our country celebrated its 100th birthday. The totality of the exhibit would also, however, celebrate those Americans who sought to keep the Reconstruction dream alive. It would also remind us that, in just a few short years, America will be celebrating its 250th birthday. And the exhibit will ask us, where will we be in 2026 on the long arc of moral justice in reaching a more equitable, multi-racial society?
Jeffrey Boutwell, who was born in Boston and currently lives in Columbia, Maryland, is the author of a forthcoming biography of his distant cousin, George S. Boutwell.