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Archer Alexander

Ancestry of
Archer Alexander

Heroic Slave

Who was Archer Alexander

Archer Alexander was a heroic slave who in 1863, at the risk of death, warned Union troops of planned attacks by Southern sympathizers. In 1876 he was the model for the slave depicted on the "Freedom's Monument" by Thomas Ball that was erected in Lincoln Park in Washington, D.C., and a replica of the monument at Boston in 1879. In 1940, he was depicted on a U.S. postage stamp as part of the Black American Commemorative series. In 2014, the Archer Alexander Distinguished Professorship was established at Washington University. He is the 3rd great-grandfather of boxing legend Muhammad Ali.

Archer Alexander was a slave living in Missouri when he overheard Conferate plans to sabotage a bridge used by the Union army. He traveled about 5 miles at night to warn the Union troops. Archer risked death, most likely by lynching, if he was caught, so returning to his owner and family was not an option, Archer continued on to St. Louis where he was taken in by William Greenleaf Eliot, Jr., a Unitarian pastor and founder of Washington University. The Rev. Eliot was also the grandfather of poet T.S. Eliot.

In 1885, a few years after Archer Alexander's death, William Greenleaf Eliot, Jr. published a biography chronicling Archer's heroic journey from slavery to freedom. The book also devotes a chapter at the beginning to "Freedom's Monument" by artist Thomas Ball in Washington, D.C. A picture of the artist's monument in marble can be found at the beginning of the book. The monuments on display were cast in bronze in Germany.

Freedom's Monument (aka Emancipation Memorial)

In April 1865 about a week after Lincoln's assassination, an emancipated slave named Charlotte Scott took the first $5 that she earned as a free woman, and asked that it be used to build a monument to President Lincoln who she called, "the best friend the colored people ever had." Charlotte's suggestion became a cause that included $12,150 in donations from black troops under the command of General J. W. Davidson. Other donations brought the total to over $16,000. Despite the project being put on hold after Andrew Johnson's ascent to the presidency, "Freedom's Monument" was unveiled at Lincoln Park in Washington, D.C., by President Ulysses S. Grant on April 14, 1876. Abolitionist Frederick Douglas gave the keynote address. A duplicate of the monument was dedicated in Boston's Park Square on December 11, 1879. The monument is said to be the first to be solely funded by freedmen, and that Archer Alexander is the first African American to be featured on a statue in Washington, D.C.

Although Archer Alexander's name is not found on the monument, there is no doubt that it was his likeness used on the monument. In 1869, the Rev. Eliot visited the sculptor Thomas Ball at his studio in Florence, Italy. Ball's original monument featured a slave wearing a liberty cap, reminiscent of the caps featured in artwork from the American Revolution. This depiction was perceived to show a slave receiving the gift of freedom too passively. So the suggestion was made to show a "representative form" of a slave breaking the chain that had bound him. The artist agreed and photographs of Archer Alexander, a fugitive slave, were sent to him.

Freedom's Monument Controversy

The monument in Washington, D.C., and its replica in Boston, are controversial due to their depiction of President Lincoln in the act of emancipating a black slave. Lincoln stands looking down with an outstretched hand over the slave who is down on one knee, half naked, with broken shackles on his wrist and ankle. Even descendants of Archer Alexander, who's image is featured on the monument, do not agree on whether the monuments should remain, or be removed. While some agree with the artist's interpretation of the monument as showing Archer Alexander as rising and breaking the chains of bondage, others interpret it as him bowing to Lincoln. Although the reknowned abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass gave the keynote speech at its unveiling, he referred to the monument only as "the highly interesting object" at the start of his speech. However, he did speak highly of the occasion, if not the monument itself.

"This occasion is in some respects remarkable. Wise and thoughtful men of our race, who shall come after us, and study the lesson of our history in the United States; who shall survey the long and dreary spaces over which we have travelled; who shall count the links in the great chain of events by which we have reached our present position, will make a note of this occasion; they will think of it and speak of it with a sense of manly pride and complacency."

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