89.1 WEMU

Why A History Professor Says 'Racist' Emancipation Memorial Shouldn't Come Down

Jun 27, 2020
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Princeton University today announced that it will remove former President Woodrow Wilson's name from its public policy school and a residential college. In a statement, the university's board of trustees said Wilson's, quote, "racist thinking and policies make him an inappropriate namesake" - unquote. It's just one of the many honors and tributes and memorials being reconsidered now.

In Washington, D.C., protesters have been demanding the removal of a monument honoring another former president, Abraham Lincoln. But that one has many layers to it. It's the Emancipation Memorial in Lincoln Park in a residential neighborhood close to Capitol Hill, and it depicts a standing Lincoln towering over a kneeling, shirtless African American man with chains broken, newly freed.

Critics say the imagery itself is racist, and David Blight, a professor of history at Yale University, agrees. But he wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post this week saying, don't tear it down. David Blight is with us now to tell us more about why he says that.

Professor Blight, thank you so much for joining us.

DAVID BLIGHT: Thank you so much, Michel. Good to be with you.

MARTIN: Tell us a bit more about the memorial. It's also called the Freedman's Memorial. In fact, most people in D.C. call it that. Tell us about how it came to be.

BLIGHT: Well, it came to be over many years. There were many designs to build a monument to Emancipation and Lincoln. And finally, it was organized by the U.S. Sanitary Commission, which is an organization founded during the war to care for troops. The money was raised by African Americans - $20,000 almost entirely by African Americans.

And the day that it was dedicated was a federal holiday in the city. The unveiling was preceded by a massive parade, by African Americans, drum and bugle corps, cornet bands and all the rest. And Frederick Douglass was the orator of the day. One crucial fact, too, is that the entire government was there and represented - President Grant, members of the Cabinet, Supreme Court justices, members of the House and Senate - the entire government.

MARTIN: So I want to mention here that, professor Blight, you're the author of the biography "Frederick Douglass: Prophet Of Freedom." And you talk about the fact that Frederick Douglass is connected to this monument in a very significant way. So tell us more about what he said and why that's so significant.

BLIGHT: Sure. This is what's so important about that speech, and it's what makes that ground sacred to me, is Douglass used this moment to warn the government - sitting right in front of President Grant and the whole crew - that they are losing the battle for Reconstruction.

It's the election year of 1876, and Douglass tells them, you know, that Black folk on the ground in the South are losing their right to vote. They're being terrorized. They're being murdered. And then what he does is, in effect, he appropriates the memory of Lincoln to the cause of Black civil and political rights. He says, if you lose this now, what Lincoln and the government did, this country did, will be lost.

MARTIN: So you said in your piece it was and is a racist image. This is hardly the monument our culture would create today as a memorial of Emancipation. So why shouldn't it come down?

BLIGHT: Because we can't purify our history. Yes, that's a racist image. But there's a much larger story about that monument, about its unveiling, about what it meant at that time, about why it wasn't done during Reconstruction that would truly be lost if you simply remove it and stick it in the corner of some museum, where it would become some kind of curiosity.

MARTIN: So if you're saying if you can't purify the past, you can't purify history, by that standard, should any monuments come down?

BLIGHT: Yes.

MARTIN: So what's the difference here?

BLIGHT: The removing of Confederate monuments is not purifying history. We'll still teach about the Confederacy. And you could argue, yes, we'll still teach about Emancipation if we removed that statue. But think about how much better we can teach about it by having it there. I am all for removing Confederate monuments, especially some of them.

MARTIN: And why is that?

BLIGHT: Because those people fought to destroy the United States. They fought to preserve slavery and white supremacy. The Freedman's Memorial has racist imagery. There's no question. That image of the standing liberator, or at least of the kneeling slave, is the oldest image in abolitionist iconography. It's unfortunate. And we could wish that the 19th century's approach to race was better, but it wasn't.

MARTIN: You say in your piece that you fully understand that protests are not forums for complexity, that current demonstrations are the results of justifiable passion and outrage. And you said in your email to me, where we were sort of talking about setting up this conversation - you said, look. I'm afraid that I'm - you fear that people don't know what it's all about. What if people do know what it's all about, and they still don't like it, and they still want it gone?

BLIGHT: I understand. In fact, you'd be amazed the emails I've had about this, I bet - incredible emails from African Americans who have grown up in D.C. and tell me that, you know, walking by that monument has never felt comfortable. And if I were them, that indeed might be my point of view. This is the view of a historian.

As I said, I've taken teachers and students to that monument. That monument is something to teach with. So, you know, my fear is that the circumstances, the conditions, the context when that thing was unveiled will be lost. But I think if you had it there next to a great, new, modern, beautiful Emancipation Memorial - what an amazing way to mix past and present and learn from it. If that was a national creation, as Douglass said, let's create another national memorial there next to it.

MARTIN: That's David Blight. He is the Sterling professor of history at Yale University and author of the book "Frederick Douglass: Prophet Of Freedom."

Professor Blight, thanks so much for talking to us today.

BLIGHT: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.