Lincoln Park on East Capitol Street between 11th and 13th is an idyllic little piece of real estate. Surrounded by old victorian rowhouses, the two-block wide park has plenty of grass and some lovely walking paths, and two monuments that I found fascinating. I decided not to choose which one, but rather share them both: the Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial, and the Emancipation Memorial.
Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial
Placed on the site in 1974, the Robert Berks bronze features McLeod Bethune and two young children playing. Bethune was an advisor to Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt, founder of Bethune-Cookman College in Florida, and a legendary civil rights advocate working on behalf of children of color throughout the United States.
The Bronze monument in Lincoln Park is the work of Robert Berks, whose other sculpture in the city include the Albert Einstein Memorial at the National Academy of Sciences, and the statue of JFK in the main lobby of the Kennedy Center. The sculpture itself is ringed with bronze casts of her final will & testament, the text reads:
“I leave you love. I leave you hope. I leave you the challenge of developing confidence in one another. I leave you a thirst for education. I leave you a respect for the use of power. I leave you faith. I leave you racial dignity. I leave you a desire to live harmoniously with your fellow men. I leave you, finally, a responsibility to our young people.”
What I love about this monument is its rough-hewn sincerity. So many monuments in DC are polished to a high sheen, every surface smooth. Marble & Granite ground to silken smoothness. The stone-embossed concrete, Berks’ almost brutalist lack of a smooth edge.
In 1874, 100 years before the Bethune Memorial would be erected on the eastern edge of Lincoln Park, the Western Sanitary Commission built the Emanicipation Monument. They titled it the Freedman’s Memorial to Abraham Lincoln, and began to raise money to have it built in Washington. They began, according to the press accounts, with $5 donated by a former slave. Rodney Young from American University may have said it best, “In many ways, it exemplified and reflected the hopes, dreams, striving, and ultimate failures of reconstruction.”
The monument itself looks, well, a friend of mine said, upon seeing the photo above, “Wow, way to make Abraham Lincoln look like a gay pimpdaddy slavedriver!” You can’t miss all manner of post-Civil War symbolism of the Great White Liberator freeing the Helpless Savage from bondage. I felt the whole thing was patronizing.
But, well, perhaps that’s par or the course for the Western Sanitary Commission, a charitable organization founded as a War Relief Effort for the Civil War. A predominantly white upper-class organization that advertised for donations as early as the early 1860s for war relief, based out of Saint Louis.
The design that sits today in Lincoln Park is actually the second design. The original would’ve been much more impressive, I think, and included Lincoln on a Pedestal, surrounded by African American Soldiers from the North. However, it was nixed due to cost.
The two monuments represent two very different views of African American contribution to American society, and the difference of 100 years couldn’t be more clear between them. While aesthetically, the Emancipation Monument is more pleasing to my eye, thematically the Bethune Memorial is a more appropriate and fitting piece for the District.
Monumental is a bi-weekly feature covering the various monuments and decorations of Washington DC. If you’d like to suggest a monument for exploration, please email tom at welovedc dot com.