Don’t Tear it Down: The Freedmen’s Memorial

An Open Letter from a Black Constituent

Written by Cheryl of Lincoln Park | Edited by the Davila Kafe Team


The Freedmen's Memorial at Lincoln Park | Photo by Cheryl of Lincoln Park

Dear Council Member Allen,

I am a Black constituent who lives near Lincoln Park in a gentrifying neighborhood with increasingly fewer symbols of DC’s Black history. I was drawn to living near the park because of the Freedmen’s Memorial and what it meant to the formerly enslaved people like Charlotte Scott of Virginia who donated her first $5 earned in freedom to commission it.


Every visitor to my home gets a brief history lesson of how mostly formerly enslaved people raised $20,000 to erect the statue. These formerly enslaved Black people, however, did not control the design which rendered what many consider a racist depiction of a crouching formerly enslaved person. Many of my guests have been offended by that crouching figure and did not see him as an “agent in his own resistance” and rising, as the Italy-based sculptor,Thomas Ball, assumed was implied in his work. Despite their initial indignation, my guests soften when they learn the history of the statue and what it meant to formerly enslaved people in post-antebellum DC. This memorial meant something to them and it should mean something to us even if its meaning is contested in our times.


This moment is ripe for public education, it quite literally is a teachable moment. It is ahistorical for this statue to be part of the debate to remove confederate statues—it is not that!

There is an important historical context that should be added to the park. Despite increasing gentrification, it marks the presence of Blacks in the Hill East area going back to Emancipation. Many neighbors of the park are woefully ignorant of its history. In my non-scientific polling of my immediate neighbors, not one of them knew the history. Relatedly, it seems that our delegate to Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton, is unaware of the meaning of the statue and is, unfortunately, supporting its removal. This moment is ripe for public education, it quite literally is a teachable moment.

It is ahistorical for this statue to be part of the debate to remove confederate statues—it is not that! The park also contains the only statue in DC of a Black woman, educator and activist Mary McLeod Bethune, which was commissioned by the National Council of Negro Women. When that statue was erected in 1974, a year after we got home rule, the Freedmen’s Monument was turned from facing the Capitol to facing Bethune. I like to imagine that Lincoln and Bethune have been conversing ever since. I wish we, taxpayers and voters in D.C., could have a nuanced conversation about the meaning of the Freedmen’s Monument.


Removing it, will destroy its cultural and educational value and erase the meaning it had for the lives of the formerly enslaved Black community that paid for it in the late 1870s.

Member Allen, what will you do to help preserve this important historical marker to the presence of Black Americans in the Hill East area? I believe this park has a lot to teach all Americans. The conversations surrounding this memorial must not be simplistically framed as a generational divide. It is not! I am neither a Boomer, nor a Zoomer, and I see its importance. Removing it, will destroy its cultural and educational value and erase the meaning it had for the lives of the formerly enslaved Black community that paid for it in the late 1870s.

Sincerely,

Cheryl of Lincoln Park

(Exact address removed for privacy)


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