Archer Alexander’s fame came largely after his death. Depicted in bronze kneeling before President Abraham Lincoln, his story also received renewed attention recently amid recent calls for monuments connected to slavery and colonialism to be pulled down. In the wake of global anti-racism protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd in the U.S., such controversial monuments became the target of Black Lives Matter protesters across the world, including the UK and Belgium.
In the U.S., statues of Confederate leaders and the explorer Christopher Columbus were toppled. In Washington, D.C., protesters made attempts to tear down the controversial Emancipation Memorial, a statue of a freed slave kneeling before President Abraham Lincoln. The bronze memorial in Lincoln Park was erected in 1876 to commemorate the Emancipation Proclamation, the executive order signed by Lincoln that ended slavery in the Confederacy. It was commissioned and paid for by Black people after the Civil War, but now protesters say the position of the formerly enslaved Black man at the feet of Lincoln is offensive and should be removed.
For many, the statue does not in any way show how enslaved African Americans pushed for their own emancipation. As a matter of fact, scores of enslaved African Americans fought for their own freedom. Such was the case of Alexander, the real-life model for the newly freed slave in the controversial Emancipation Memorial, also called the Freedman’s Memorial.
Born enslaved near Richmond, Virginia, around 1813, Alexander’s father, Aleck Alexander, was sold while he was a young boy. Aleck’s crime: he had talked to other enslaved people about escape and freedom. In 1831 when Alexander’s owner died, Alexander was inherited by his owner’s eldest son, Thomas. Thomas took Alexander to Missouri, separating him from the rest of his family. Alexander’s mom died six months after he had moved to Missouri. Alexander, who had then started work in a brickyard, was allowed to marry a Black woman named Louisa, who was enslaved on a nearby farm.
After a few years, Thomas sold Alexander to the owner of Louisa, Alexander’s wife. Alexander and his wife would have many children. When the Civil War began on April 12, 1861, Alexander was still enslaved on a farm near St. Louis, Missouri. During the Civil War, Missouri did not secede from the Union, however, many Missourians were Confederate sympathizers, including Alexander’s owner, Hollman. Alexander had then heard reports of Black people freeing themselves by joining the Union and was “quite prepared to do his part in breaking his chains,” according to his biography written by William Greenleaf Eliot, a minister and abolitionist.
In February of 1863 when Alexander got wind of the fact that Confederate sympathizers in Missouri had cut the wooden timbers below a bridge that Union troops would cross on their way to Jefferson City, he walked five miles in the middle of the night to warn someone he knew was loyal to the Union. Thanks to Alexander, the Union troops repaired the bridge in time before crossing it. But soon Alexander was found out, and there and then he knew he had to leave. He escaped one night, joining a group of Black men headed to the North for freedom. But slave catchers caught them and locked them in a room in Missouri.
Alexander escaped again and in the long run met Eliot, who would later be his biographer. Eliot requested to buy Alexander’s freedom from his owner, Hollman, but the latter refused and instead sent men, including a policeman, to kidnap Alexander and jail him. But Eliot, with his social connections, was able to rescue Alexander. He sent him across the river to Alton, Illinois, which was not a slave state, to work on a friend’s farm.
By June 1863, Alexander was able to return to Missouri to get closer to his wife and kids following a change in Missouri’s emancipation laws. Alexander later moved his wife and kids to Eliot’s farm, and in January 1865, they all became free when slavery was formally abolished in Missouri at the state convention. But it was in April of that year that Lincoln was assassinated. A campaign was launched to build a monument to Lincoln, with a good chunk of the money for the project coming from scores of Black men who fought with the Union for their freedom.
Eliot, who was then a member of a relief organization that worked on the campaign to build the monument, urged the White sculptor who designed the monument, Thomas Ball, to use an image of a real man. “I had photographs taken, and carried them home with me,” Eliot wrote. “The Commission thankfully adopted them, with one suggestion of change, that instead of the ideal figure of a slave wearing a liberty cap, and receiving the gift of freedom passively, as in the original marble group, the representative form of a negro should be introduced, helping to break the chain that had bound him. Mr. Ball kindly assented.”
Eliot subsequently sent a photograph of Alexander to Ball. In April 1876, the Freedman’s Memorial in Lincoln Park was unveiled, with abolitionist Frederick Douglass delivering the memorial’s dedication. He would later find fault with the statue, with his sentiments being shared by many today. Critics have wondered why Alexander, a self-emancipator, is depicted on his knees before Lincoln. He should be standing tall, they say, to show the fact that he is a freed Black man. If he is free, he should be standing tall as the Civil War hero he was who fought hard to break free from the chains that bind him.
Curiously, Alexander was not at the dedication of the Freedman’s Memorial, neither was Eliot. Alexander however saw a photograph of the monument after its installation. Eliot, who showed that photograph to him, wrote that Alexander “laughed all over” upon seeing himself alongside Lincoln. All in all, what Alexander was grateful for was that “he died in freedom,” Eliot wrote.
Alexander spent his last days with his biographer before his death in 1880. Decades later, DNA evidence would link Muhammad Ali to Alexander. The family of the boxing legend discovered through family DNA research in 2018 that the heroic enslaved man, Alexander, was Ali’s great-great-great-grandfather.