WQCS Header Background Image
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Boston To Remove A Copy Of Thomas Ball's 1876 Emancipation Memorial

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To Boston now - that's where members of the Boston Art Commission voted unanimously last night to remove the city's copy of Thomas Ball's 1876 Emancipation Memorial sculpture. It portrays a formerly enslaved man at the feet of Abraham Lincoln. Reporter Cristela Guerra with NPR's member station WBUR has more.

CRISTELA GUERRA, BYLINE: If the job of public art is to make an impact, Boston artist Tory Bullock says the perspective of the creator is equally important. Tuesday, he maintained that the sculpture of Lincoln and the newly liberated man is a whitewashed portrayal that denigrates an entire group of people.

TORY BULLOCK: This is a frozen picture. This man is kneeling. He will never stand up. There is no other memorial in this city that requires viewers to fill in the blanks as to what's about to happen. Why us? This image is problematic because it feeds into a narrative that Black people need to be led and freed, a narrative that seems very specific to us for some reason. Why is our trauma so glorified?

GUERRA: Similar to the issues of Confederate memorials around the nation, this sculpture has been controversial for years. The original in D.C. was fully funded by formerly enslaved peoples but designed without their input. A Howard University student and Massachusetts resident named Hannah Bessette called the statue an affront to the movement happening around the country.

HANNAH BESSETTE: I am mortified at the vision of that statue. It is demeaning. It is degrading. Regardless of what the intentions were, it is important to note the intentions were white-based intentions as it was a white-created statue.

GUERRA: A handful of people who spoke at the meeting were in favor of keeping the sculpture where it is and adding context, but Commission member Robert Freeman changed his mind after listening to two mothers in another recent virtual meeting. They spoke of bringing their sons to see the sculpture. The boys immediately noticed the shirtless Black man with broken shackles on his wrists and ankles.

ROBERT FREEMAN: And their son said, that statue looks like dad. And the other said, it looks like me. And then I realized that changing the inscription is not going to change the visual power of what art does. So I have changed my mind, and I am for now the removal of the statue to a safe place.

GUERRA: Professor Ibrahim Sundiata believes the sculpture belongs in a museum. He's a scholar who's written extensively on West African and African American history. He grew up in Washington, D.C., and says he used to walk past the statue of the formerly enslaved man at Lincoln's feet. As a kid, Sundiata thought it was creepy.

IBRAHIM SUNDIATA: I'm for preserving this statue, which troubled my 5-year-old mind, my 6-year-old mind and is still in my memory. At the same time, I do not believe it should be warehoused, forgotten. It needs to have people talk about where the pose came from, why the statue was paid for by freed men and basically how that pose, those attitudes, continue, this sort of white paternalism inform us.

GUERRA: Commission vice chair and artist Ekua Holmes says she imagines the newly emancipated people who funded this sculpture would have chosen different imagery for themselves if they'd had the choice - something more aspirational, more self-determining, something timeless.

For NPR News in Boston, I'm Cristela Guerra.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD'S "SINCE YOU ASKED KINDLY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.