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The glory of Kings memorial speaks of an inglorious history

William Covington | 8/24/2011, 5 p.m.

Henry Kirke Brown, an artist during the mid-1800s, fashioned Native Americans as Greek gods for his bronze sculptures, which seemed acceptable in the art world during the 19th century. Brown also attempted to use his influence as a member of the United States Art Commission to make the figure of the "Negro" visible in public sculpture, but to no avail.

Savage believes that most artists realized in the 19th century that African slaves were not ideal candidates for sculptured models due to their status of slave and their later fall to the concept of being subhumans.

Consequently, it was not until the 1870s that a slate, marble or bronze public monument or sculpture of an African American became a reality.

However, there were artist-entrepreneurs who made markets for themselves by creating small-scale plaster sculptures 12 inches tall or less. These renditions portrayed African Americans as strong-willed, proud people. Purchasers of these desk-top figures were abolitionists, and freedmen who could afford them.

Sculptor John Rogers created a 12-inch plaster in 1859 titled, "Slave Auction," that, oddly, depicted slaves with dignity. He was possibly the first sculptor to perceive Blacks in a rather proud way. Still, African Americans as part of a major monument did not exist in the United States prior to 1876.

The Emancipation Memorial is the first national memorial in the District depicting an African American. Archer Alexander, a runaway slave and the last man captured under the Fugitive Slave Act, was the first post-antebellum sculpture not depicting a White Civil War soldier as the main subject. The majority of monuments in the capital are of White men standing in military uniform or astride horses, and most were most were constructed after the Civil War.

A study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation in August 2002 found that most African Americans polled after viewing the Emancipation Memorial had virtually the same comment. They described the bronze sculpture as "Abraham Lincoln standing tall as a god and at his feet a shirtless, shackled, humble slave kneeling down as if thanking him for their freedom." According to the study, most African Americans felt uncomfortable while visiting the statue with their small children, especially if Whites were present. This was due to the humble position of the slave and the superior position of Lincoln, according to the poll. Additionally, some Whites also felt uncomfortable explaining the pose of President Lincoln and the slave to their young children and were embarrassed having to discuss the institution of slavery.

"When artists were commissioned to design monuments after the Civil War, they faced the great challenge of representing a society recently emancipated from slavery and also by the long campaign to abolish it," said Savage. "This was a major impact influencing the design and style--God-like White, grateful Negro. Most of the artists working on public monuments in the first years after the war had established their careers in the 1850s, when the conflict over slavery was at its peak."

Roslyn Dubois, Ph.D., an art history graduate of Pepperdine University and co-owner of the Urban Gallery in San Francisco, notes that the Emancipation Memorial was from the start a subject of controversy due to the inferior position of the slave. "This issue was first voiced by Frederick Douglass. He objected to the monument's design because it showed the Negro on his knee, when a more manly attitude would have been indicative of freedom."