Archer Alexander’s renown grew mostly after he died. His narrative has recently received additional attention with recent calls for monuments associated with slavery and colonialism to be demolished. He is depicted in bronze bowing before President Abraham Lincoln. Following global anti-racism riots initiated by the assassination of George Floyd in the United States, such contentious monuments became the target of Black Lives Matter protestors around the world, notably in the United Kingdom and Belgium.
Statues depicting Confederate leaders and the explorer Christopher Columbus were toppled in the United States. Protesters attempted to demolish the contentious Emancipation Memorial in Washington, D.C., which depicts a freed slave kneeling before President Abraham Lincoln. The bronze memorial in Lincoln Park was built in 1876 to commemorate Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order that abolished slavery in the Confederacy. After the Civil War, Black people commissioned and paid for it, but now demonstrators believe the formerly enslaved Black man’s position at Lincoln’s feet is insulting and should be removed.
For many, the statue fails to depict how enslaved African Americans fought for their own freedom. In fact, thousands of enslaved African Americans battled for their own liberation. Alexander, the real-life model for the newly freed slave in the contentious Emancipation Memorial, also known as the Freedman’s Memorial, was one of them.
Alexander’s father, Aleck Alexander, was sold as a young kid while enslaved near Richmond, Virginia, approximately 1813. Aleck’s crime was that he had discussed escape and liberation with other captive persons. When Alexander’s owner died in 1831, his eldest son, Thomas, acquired Alexander. Thomas separated Alexander from the rest of his family by transporting him to Missouri. Alexander’s mother passed away just six months after he came to Missouri. Alexander, who had begun working in a brickyard at the time, was permitted to marry Louisa, a Black woman enslaved on a nearby farm.
Thomas sold Alexander to the owner of Louisa, Alexander’s wife, after a few years. Alexander and his wife planned to have a large family. Alexander was still enslaved on a farm outside St. Louis, Missouri, when the Civil War broke out on April 12, 1861. Although Missouri did not secede from the Union during the Civil War, many Missourians, including Alexander’s owner, Hollman, were Confederate supporters. According to his biography authored by William Greenleaf Eliot, a preacher and abolitionist, Alexander had heard accounts of Black people liberating themselves by joining the Union and was “fully prepared to do his share in releasing his chains.”
Alexander travelled five miles in the middle of the night in February 1863 to notify someone he knew who was loyal to the Union that Confederate sympathizers in Missouri had cut the wooden beams underneath a bridge that Union troops would pass on their way to Jefferson City. The Union troops were able to fix the bridge in time before crossing it thanks to Alexander. Except Alexander was soon discovered, and he felt he had no choice but to flee. He escaped one night and joined a group of Black men seeking freedom in the north. Slave catchers seized them and imprisoned them in a Missouri room.
Alexander escaped once more, eventually meeting Eliot, who would later become his biographer. Eliot tried to buy Alexander’s freedom from his owner, Hollman, but he refused and instead dispatched men, including a police officer, to kidnap and imprison Alexander. However, Eliot was able to save Alexander thanks to his social ties. He sent him across the river to labor on a friend’s farm in Alton, Illinois, which was not a slave state.
Following a change in Missouri’s emancipation regulations, Alexander was permitted to return to Missouri in June 1863 to be closer to his wife and children. Alexander later transferred his wife and children to Eliot’s property, and they all became free in January 1865, when slavery in Missouri was formally abolished at the state convention. However, Lincoln was killed in April of that year. A campaign was initiated to erect a monument honoring Lincoln, with a large portion of the funds coming from African-Americans who fought with the Union for their freedom.
Eliot, who was a member of a relief organization working on the memorial campaign at the time, pushed Thomas Ball, the White sculptor who built the monument, to use a picture of a real man. Eliot wrote, “I had photographs taken and carried them home with me.” “The Commission thankfully adopted them, with one modification: instead of the ideal figure of a slave wearing a liberty cap and passively accepting the gift of freedom, as in the original marble group, a representative form of a negro should be introduced, assisting in the breaking of the chain that had bound him. Mr. Ball graciously agreed.”
Ball received an image of Alexander from Eliot. The Freedman’s Memorial in Lincoln Park was dedicated in April 1876, with abolitionist Frederick Douglass giving the dedication speech. He would eventually criticize the statue, and his feelings are still echoed by many people today.
Alexander, a self-emancipator, is represented on his knees before Lincoln, which has piqued the interest of critics. They think he should be standing up to symbolize that he is an emancipated Black man. If he is free, he should be proud of the Civil War warrior he was who fought valiantly to break free from the shackles that bound him.
Alexander and Eliot were both absent from the dedication of the Freedman’s Memorial. Alexander, on the other hand, saw an image of the monument after it was completed. Alexander “laughed all over” when he saw himself with Lincoln, according to Eliot, who showed him the photos. Overall, Alexander was thankful that “he died in freedom,” as Eliot put it.
Before his death in 1880, Alexander spent his final days with his biographer. DNA evidence would later link Muhammad Ali to Alexander decades later. In 2018, Ali’s family found through familial DNA analysis that Alexander, the brave enslaved man, was Ali’s great-great-great-grandfather.