Who is Archer Alexander? If you live near where I do, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, you are probably familiar with his face. You see him every time you walk through Lincoln Park. We all recognize the face and form of Abraham Lincoln on the Emancipation Statue that greets dog walkers and kids coming home from school at the western entrance to the park. But, until now, I did not know the name of the man who was the model for the kneeling figure of the newly emancipated slave. It is Archer Alexander. Last week, thanks to a neighbor who lives right next door to the park, I learned Archer’s story.
Archer Alexander was an enslaved man in Missouri during the Civil War who decided to risk his life to help the Union army. Having learned via an overheard conversation that a band of rebels had sawed the timbers of a bridge where Union troops would soon be passing, he decided to warn the Union troops of the danger. On the run from slave catchers who suspected what he had done, Alexander made his way to the suburbs of St. Louis where, by remarkable good fortune, he came to the attention of William Greenleaf Eliot, a Unitarian minister and co-founder of Washington University. (His grandson would be the poet T.S. Eliot) The two men became friends — Alexander worked for the Eliot family for the rest of his life. Eliot immortalized Alexander in two ways — he wrote the story of his life and he had him photographed. He then sent the images to his friend Thomas Ball who was in Italy sculpting a monument to Lincoln and to Emancipation.
The memorial was created through a fundraising effort begun by a newly emancipated Virginia woman, Charlotte Scott, who donated the first $5 she earned in freedom to a memorial. Others contributed as well. It was dedicated in 1876 with former president Ulysses S. Grant in attendance and a rousing speech by Frederick Douglass who lived in the Capitol Hill neighborhood where the statue was located in a large park.
The figure of the newly emancipated slave in the statue is not well known like Lincoln. It is so good to know who it is — Archer Alexander. He never saw the memorial where he is a stand-in for all the men and women emancipated after the Civil War. Not everyone likes the statue which some find offensively paternalistic. For me, though, knowing something of Archer Alexander’s story makes it less so. He was a real person and as such helps me to think about the enormity of slavery and of its legacy.