Emancipation statue unveiled in staged recreation
Re-enactment teaches District’s role in holiday
For the first time since 1876, Union muskets were loaded and Frederick Douglass took center stage on Capitol Hill.
The National Park Service on Monday staged a recreation of the unveiling of the Emancipation statue at Lincoln Park as part of the District’s annual celebration of Emancipation Day.
Park Service staffers last month found copies of the 1876 ceremony’s program, and Vince Vaise, the chief of visitor services, decided to recreate the event for this year’s holiday.
“We want to give people a sense of what an Emancipation Day program was like back in the 1870s,” Mr. Vaise said. “It was a time during Reconstruction, a time when the United States was trying to heal itself, kind of grappling with issues like race and class, especially only 11 years after the bloodiest war in American history and the only civil war we ever had after the bloodiest war. So let’s show what that was like.”
Among the documents Mr. Vaise and his colleagues found in the Library of Congress was a copy of the day’s speech by writer, abolitionist and freed slave Frederick Douglass, who was born in Anacostia 200 years ago. A Douglass impersonator recited the speech at Monday’s event.
“The name of Abraham Lincoln was near and dear to our hearts in the darkest and most perilous hours of the Republic,” Douglass said at the foot of the Emancipation Memorial, which he unveiled. “Our faith in him was often taxed and strained to the uttermost, but it never failed.”
Also known as the Freedman’s Memorial, the Emancipation statue shows Lincoln standing with one hand on his Emancipation Proclamation and the other gesturing over a bowed slave rising as he breaks the shackles on his wrists.
“He is a real guy,” Mr. Vaise told The Washington Times, referring to slave depicted in the statue. “His name is Archer Alexander and the face was modeled after a photograph that was sent to the sculptor. Archer Alexander was the last African-American to be caught under the Fugitive Slave Act, in the state of Missouri, so in the way he kind of symbolizes the end of slavery.”
Lincoln ended slavery in the District with the issuance of the D.C. Compensated Emancipation Act of April 16, 1862, freeing about 3,100 slaves in the city. The Emancipation Proclamation, issued Sept. 22, 1862, freed all slaves as of Jan. 1, 1863. But the Civil War did not end until 1865, and the news of the slaves’ emancipation didn’t reach Texas until June 19, 1865, which is celebrated as Juneteenth.
On Monday, the park service also hosted a variety of educational activities for children, including infantry drills with Adam Gresek, who played a Civil War-era artillery man. With a first sergeant infantryman, played by John W. McCaskill, they handed out wooden muskets to children and explained how Union troops sorted soldiers based on who had enough teeth to bite open cartridge papers.
Sheltered from the rain under a tent, three storytellers from the Double Nickels Theatre Company gathered children around. Tony Ford, a member of the company, told The Times it was an opportunity to teach about District’s special role in Emancipation Day, such as the fact that the city’s emancipation act paid slave owners $300 per freed slave — making the District the only region that compensated former slave owners.
“You can have very, very serious conversations through puppetry and it’s not threatening,” said Mr. Ford, who lives in Hillcrest in Southeast.
“When you’re talking to a puppet, it’s not hard-core school work,” said puppeteer Schroeder Cherry. “You don’t feel like you’re sitting in a classroom, but you’re still learning.”
D. Richardson, a native Washingtonian, said that historical re-enactment events like Monday’s are an important way for children to learn the lessons of the past as they forge ahead with their own activist causes.
“You can’t move into the future without the past,” said Ms. Richardson, 59.
Mr. Vaise told reporters that he hopes to make the reenactment an annual tradition at Lincoln Park.
Elsewhere in the District, residents commemorated Emancipation Day with renewed calls for D.C. statehood.
City activists met with members of the House and the Senate to voice support a statehood bill introduced by D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting representative in Congress.