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The True Story of the Freed Slave Kneeling at Lincoln’s Feet

The Emancipation Memorial in Washington, D.C., has become a flashpoint in today’s reckoning with racist statues.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
The Emancipation Memorial in Washington, D.C., depicts a newly freed slave. Not pictured: Abraham Lincoln.

We live in a moment of literally falling heroes. The Emancipation Memorial in Washington, D.C.—a statue erected in 1876, funded by money donated by former slaves, and designed and commissioned by whites—features Abraham Lincoln towering over a kneeling and shirtless African American man with broken shackles around his wrists. Considerable ink has been spilled discussing Lincoln’s mixed legacy on race and slavery as well as the speech Frederick Douglass delivered at the memorial’s dedication.

Yet the story of the other figure in the Emancipation Memorial controversy has been largely overlooked, just as it was in his own day. The crouching Black man is modeled on a real person: Archer Alexander, who lived from around 1813 to 1880. I am proud to be the inaugural holder of the Archer Alexander Distinguished Chair in the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis. As far as I know, I am the sole holder of a chaired academic position in the United States named after a fugitive slave other than Frederick Douglass.

Alexander’s fame came after his death, commemorated in the cool curves of bronze that bear his likeness in the Emancipation Memorial, and in his memorialization by his benefactor, William Greenleaf Eliot. As we say the names of George Floyd and Eric Garner and Breonna Taylor, we should say his name, too—and listen to his voice.

What we know about Alexander comes mainly from an 1885 biography by Eliot, an idealistic white New England reformer, Unitarian minister, and founder of Washington University. Eliot wrote in part to explain his own moderate pro-Union stance in St. Louis during the war years, a place in which he was known as the “conservative radical.” Missouri was a simmering stew of North and South, and its residents learned to tread carefully around the “slave question.”

It isn’t clear how the two met. Alexander was fleeing his master, a Mr. Hollman, in neighboring St. Charles County, in the spring of 1863. He had overheard Hollman conspiring to blow up a bridge used by the Union Army, and when Alexander notified authorities, he knew he had to leave. He fled to the city, where greater anonymity afforded cover from slave catchers. Eliot sheltered Alexander under the military protection of the provost-marshal and tried to buy his freedom from Hollman. But the enraged Hollman refused to sell his escaped laborer, claiming that “he didn’t mean to play into the hands of any Yankee Abolitionist.” Instead, he sent Southern sympathizers, including a city policeman, to kidnap the fugitive and jail him. Eliot, drawing on his own social connections and the powers of the Union Army, secured his release, bought him a new set of clothes, and secreted him across the river to Alton, Illinois, until the change in Missouri’s emancipation laws took effect. After the war, Alexander remained employed in the Eliot household for the rest of his life.

There was much more to Alexander’s life besides his relationship with Eliot. He was married to a woman enslaved west of St. Louis, with whom he had 10 children. Though we don’t know much about his personal life, the experiences of other African Americans allow us to piece together the myriad loyalties and affiliations available to Alexander. It is likely he had ties to local Black communities that were emerging in the 1840s, to networks of African American ministers like John Berry Meachum, who opened a school for African American children at the First Baptist Church. When the school grew to over 300 pupils, local authorities moved swiftly to close it down and accused Meachum of stirring up trouble. Instead, five more schools opened in Black churches around the city. Missouri then passed a stringent literacy law in 1847 that forbade any school teaching of Black students and also banned the holding of Black church services without the presence of a white constable or police officer. In response, Meachum created a new school on a barge in the Mississippi River, beyond the reach of state jurisdiction. Students daily commuted by skiff out to the Freedom School.

African Americans, like other migrants to the American West, built worlds for themselves when and where they could. The silence of the fugitive slave, the stillness and nakedness of the figure of Archer Alexander on the Emancipation Memorial, may well reflect the fragments of African American life that whites were able to see, but they should not be mistaken for empty space or lack of a voice. Eliot represented Alexander’s opportunity for protection from enslavement, but Alexander also offered Eliot a way to preserve his growing commitments to racial justice and religious liberalism. They promised one another expansive visions of society that could only be glimpsed—and maybe still are only seen—as partial and unfinished.

When Eliot visited the sculptor Thomas Ball, in his Italian studio in 1869, he spied a statue created after Lincoln’s death featuring the president and an “ideal figure of a slave wearing a liberty cap.” He inquired whether Ball might be interested in creating something similar for the Freedmen’s Memorial Society, but he requested two changes. First, rather than “receiving the gift of freedom passively,” Eliot requested that the slave be “helping to break the chain that had bound him.” Second, he forwarded a photograph of Archer Alexander: Rather than an ideal slave, he wanted the visage of his longtime employee.

Eliot nursed Alexander in his last days, paying for his expenses and ensuring proper medical care. After Alexander’s death, Eliot presided at his funeral at the African Methodist Church and paid his burial expenses.

To be sure, Eliot was a white elite man of his times. His memoir of Alexander is deeply racist, the language he uses painfully patronizing. Both he and Alexander navigated the murky waters toward a future they could not see or even fully imagine. But is our situation any less cloudy? Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton and a neighborhood association of young African Americans want the Emancipation Memorial removed; some of Archer Alexander’s descendants think it is important to leave it in place, while others (including the eldest daughter of Muhammad Ali, who was a distant descendent of Alexander) find it offensive. Prominent politicians have also weighed in, in far more predictable ways. But it is the deep ambivalence among African Americans and the pain revealed therein that exposes the unfinished business of our racial politics.

As Eliot expressed it:

Here were no impartial judges, no unprejudiced witnesses, to observe or record the facts. Right-minded men could hardly tell where the lines of right and wrong crossed each other. Living in St. Louis the whole time and long before, and knowing many of those engaged in the strife on either side, I thought I saw both sides as they really were, but, in truth, I saw neither. The complications of action and motive, both right and wrong, were past finding out. One thing, however, is sure: that the right prevailed at last.

Alexander’s response remains troubling. When Eliot showed him a photograph of the monument after its installation and told him that he would be forever remembered alongside Abraham Lincoln, the elderly man apparently “laughed all over.” Eliot’s recounting continues: “He presently sobered down and exclaimed, ‘Now I’se a white man! Now I’se free! I thank the good Lord that he has ’livered me from all my troubles, and I’se lived to see this.’”

The minister took this response as sincere joy and gratitude. But was it mockery? Bitterness? Or some other emotion that Alexander could not express within the vexed bounds of his relationship to his white benefactor? Whether we move statues or keep them in place, our history in all its complexity needs to remain in plain sight. We cannot lock it behind walls or barricade it with cement. We need to move through that place of pain until the statues themselves become irrelevant.