Perhaps the most durable visual manifestation of any society is in its commemorative forms, its monuments, with their intention to convey the significance of certain contemporary events and individuals to future generations. As Kirk Savage’s remarkable 1997 study Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America chronicles, immediately after Abraham Lincoln’s death, plans were instituted for a national monument to emancipation, a fitting tribute to the fallen president (the contemporary Lincoln Memorial was a twentieth-century creation). First financed by contributions from African Americans, particularly black soldiers, plans for the monument grew in ambition and soon came under the sway of sympathetic white sponsors. The original design by New England sculptor Harriet Hosmer highlighted the African-American experience from slavery to freedom, culminating with the figure of a black soldier brandishing a rifle. This concept represented a break from earlier traditions of public sculpture, offering both a powerful celebration of Reconstruction and a new form of civic representation of black Americans–the first time a black figure would appear in a national monument. Plans foundered as additional funds for a more sizeable and ambitious installation in Washington, D.C., were sought and other constituencies were wooed for support. Moving through a succession of plans and artists, the designs grew more fragmented and unfocused.
Adequate funding never materialized and a more modest monument was finally unveiled on the eastern edge of Capitol Hill on April 14, 1876, the eleventh anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination. Half-clad, kneeling at the Great Emancipator’s feet, the figure of the slave in Thomas Ball’s Freedmen’s Memorial to Abraham Lincoln may have offered a realistic portrait of a black man (based on a photograph of a former slave named Archer Alexander) but his appearance and position offered posterity a message of subservience. In Frederick Douglass’s words, overheard at the unveiling ceremony, “it showed the Negro on his knee when a more manly attitude would have been indicative of freedom.”
The year of this monument’s unveiling, 1876, also marked the one-hundredth anniversary of the nation’s existence. The center of the celebration was the lavish Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, an event set forth on 450 acres of technological wonders, national resources, and achievements in art and culture. The fair was more about the future than the past, heralding the nation’s triumphant recovery and dynamic growth since its bloody civil war. But, as I’ve previously written on this website, there was little either on the fair grounds or in print that acknowledged, let alone celebrated, the very recent extraordinary experience of emancipation and Reconstruction.
One extraordinary exception to the erasure of emancipation from the Centennial was the statue of The Freed Slave, which stood in the exposition’s massive Memorial Hall. This statue- by an Austro-Italian artist, Francesco Pezzicar, and mounted as part of Austria’s contribution to the fair- was a magnet for African-American visitors of all classes. But Pezzicar’s work also was the focus of unusual derision by American commentators. Atlantic Monthly editor and later well-known novelist William Dean Howells, for example, called it “a most offensively Frenchy negro, who has broken his chain, and spreading both his arms and legs abroad is rioting in a declamation of something from Victor Hugo; one longs to clap him back into hopeless bondage.” Moreover, as I’ve mentioned, an engraving published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper in August 1876 offered a unique pictorial report on the fair, depicting a range of African-American visitors gathered around a powerful visual symbol from abroad that commemorated their hard fought achievements and, even in the face of violence and faltering federal commitment, persistent aspirations.
To get a better sense of how unusual the statue and Leslie’s print were, we previously had only textual evidence for comparison–and no evidence, I believe, ever made direct reference to the engraving. But Robert Davis of the Ph.D. Program in Theatre at The City University of New York Graduate Center, who is working on a project on performance and U.S. expositions from the 1870s through the 1890s, has uncovered an illuminating item in an 1876 fair guide. One of many such guides, the 58-page Going to the Centennial by “Bricktop” offers an irreverent view of the Philadelphia fair’s attractions and activities. In keeping with its times, its observation about African-American visitors and The Freed Slave offers a derisive minstrel skit featuring ignorance and pomposity:
In one of the halls stands the bronze statue of Emancipation, representing a negro dancing, and holding aloft the Emancipation Proclamation. It is a rare work of art, and must be seen to be appreciated.
But I could not help laughing as a pair of colored visitors came along and viewed it. They evidently did not know what it represented, and seeing its bronze nudity they were shocked, or at least she was, and my artist friend sketched them at the moment.
“Who dat, Charles?” she asked, glancing at it and then turning away.
“Dat? Dat am some great colored man; Fred Douglass, I guess,” replied her escort.
“Pshaw! who ever hearn tell ob Fred Douglass cuttin’ up dat way wid no clothes on?” and she pulled him away to something less allegorical.
The accompanying illustration certainly also wallows in equivalent racist visual language (drawn by Thomas Worth, who would gain a reputation for depicting African Americans as minstrel-inspired buffoons in his popular series of Currier & Ives prints, Darktown Comics, published in the 1880s and 90s)–and it also succinctly depicts the visual order against which the statue, engraving, and, indeed, the fair’s African-American visitors were counterpoised.