A few years ago, BrightPath Tours gave a presentation titled The Civil War Memorials of Washington, DC. This blog is taken from that talk and with it, we’ll finish the “outdoor” memorials to Abraham Lincoln.
Less than ten years after the Lincoln statue at Judiciary Square was dedicated, another small memorial arrived on the DC landscape, this one titled Emancipation. Similar to the Judiciary Square statue, a fund was established to collect donations, however, rather than gathering funds from businessmen and friends of Lincoln, THIS fund was made up largely from the donations of freed men and women. The first donation, five dollars, came from a woman, Charlotte Scott, who had been a slave in Virginia. That five dollars was the first money she had earned as a free woman.
Sitting in Lincoln Park, a small public park just a few blocks behind the US Capitol, the memorial is twelve feet tall and stands on a twelve-foot tall pedestal. The work of sculptor Thomas Ball, it was dedicated on April 14, 1876, eleven years after Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theatre.
Ball added quite a bit of symbolism to this memorial. He put a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation in Lincoln’s right hand and the Proclamation rests on a podium that contains such symbols of our country as fasces, the Roman symbol signifying Union. Thirteen stars circle the base of the podium, a bas-relief of George Washington is carved above the stars, and thirty-six small stars (for the number of states in the Union at the time Lincoln was assassinated) line the top.
The figure of a former slave kneels at Lincoln’s feet. The head of this figure is that of Archer Alexander, who supposedly was the last slave recaptured under the Fugitive Slave Act. With his wrist shackles broken, the man is looking ahead to the future. Behind him are additional symbols — of slavery: shackles, a whip, a whipping post. A rose vine creeps up the whipping post. In this sculpture, the vine is a symbol that slavery and the social beliefs related to slavery are now in the past.
Before the large Lincoln Memorial on the Mall was erected, this small monument was the focal point of all Lincoln celebrations in the District. It was here that wreaths were laid each year on the anniversaries of Lincoln’s birthday and of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. During the Civil Rights era, Emancipation was a rallying place for protestors and related gatherings.
The Young Abe Lincoln, or, the Rail Splitter
The portrait statue, titled The Young Abe Lincoln or The Rail Splitter, is the one of the least known of the Lincoln statues in DC, mainly because of its location in the courtyard of the Department of the Interior, (on C Street, near the White House). At the time of its installation in 1940, it was also the most controversial of the Lincoln Memorials in DC.
The year was 1939, the year of the New York World’s Fair. The sculptor was Louis Slobodkin. Slobodkin, along with about four hundred other artists, entered a competition to create a relief panel that would decorate the United States Building at the Fair. Although Slobodkin would not win that commission, he impressed enough of the judges that they recommended that he enlarge his model and create a free-standing piece for the Building. The work he produced was a fifteen-foot plaster statue of Abraham Lincoln, but instead of the usual heroic stature, Slobodkin chose to present Lincoln as a very young man — a lanky, muscular rail splitter.
Thrilled with the opportunity to show his work in such a public venue, Slobodkin brought his wife to the Federal Building before the Fair opened. However, when they arrived, a guard informed them that the statue was not there – and he did not know where it had gone!
It turned out that the World’s Fair Commissioner General himself had ordered the statue broken up into small pieces stating that it was too big, too high, it was not architecturally meaningful, and most important, it was too ugly! Further, he called this “modern” version of Lincoln “ridiculous”.
Slobodkin went to the press, he hired an attorney and threatened a lawsuit against the Government – not only for ruining his work but for ruining his reputation as well. The Government, not wanting a spectacle in court, requested a settlement. Slobodkin agreed as long as the settlement included the return of his model AND a new commission for the same statue – this one in bronze. He got both. When it was completed in 1939, the statue was originally displayed in the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC. From there, the seven-and-a-half-foot Art Deco bronze was moved to the courtyard of the Department of the Interior, where it stands today.
A note on the statue’s location: To view the statue, visitors enter the courtyard through the cafeteria, which, the last we checked, is only open Monday through Friday, and closes at 3:00 PM.
- “The Outdoor Sculpture of Washington DC”, James M Goode
- “Testament to the Union”, Kathryn Allamong Jacob
- Lynch’s Ferry Magazine – LynchsFerry.com