J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A New Memorial Proposed for D.C.

In 1980, Lena Santos Ferguson applied for membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution.

She traced her ancestry to Jonah Gay, who in 1775 was on the committee of correspondence for Meduncook, Maine, later called Friendship.

It took four years for the organization to accept that documentation and make Ferguson “the second black member of the Daughters of the American Revolution in modern times.”

The organization soon came around to supporting a project to document over 6,000 black Continental soldiers and in 2008 published the reference book Forgotten Patriots.

At the same time Ferguson’s nephew, Maurice Barboza, was inspired to imagine a monument to those soldiers in Washington, D.C. Recently the Washington Post reported a milestone in that effort:
Last month, Congress unanimously authorized a site for the memorial: the northeast corner of 14th Street and Independence Avenue, a main gateway to the city, in what is currently a surface parking lot next to the Department of Agriculture. And on Sept. 26, President Obama signed the authorization into law. The National Liberty Memorial was formally approved for placement on the Mall. . . .

But Barboza’s mission is far from done. Supporters of the National Liberty Memorial must raise at least $6 million to fund the memorial’s design and construction. And then they have to earn the approval of the National Capital Planning Commission and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.
Here’s the website for the effort to complete this monument. Above is sculptor Michael Curtis’s proposed design.

5 comments:

Chaucerian said...

1980. Criminentlies. That's embarrassing.

Don Carleton (Jr.) said...

On one level, I think this is a laudable project, and shame on the DAR for the foot-dragging in terms of recognizing an eligible applicant of African-American descent.

On other levels, though, this project seems deeply problematic, given that many colonial African-Americans saw greater prospects for liberty on the British side, leaving the question open of who really are the greater "patriots" in this story--those who fought bravely in an anticolonial war that had the ultimate effect of embedding slavery even more deeply here, or those who risked everything to side with a (doomed at least here) empire to obtain their individual freedom?

Then there's the question of the design of the proposed monument. Leaving aside the question of the figures' clothing--which seems closer to Willard's "Spirit of 1776" than anything actually worn in the late eighteenth century--the design makes socialist realism look good (and some socialist realist stuff was certainly powerful). Where's Maya Lin when we need her?

J. L. Bell said...

I don't know what caused the delay in Ferguson's application back in the early 1980s: documentation, issues of legitimacy, prejudice, prejudice disguised as concern about documentation? But the D.A.R. seems to have done a 180° turn soon afterward and is now an authoritative source on African-American Continentals.

You're correct that there were also many other blacks in North America who supported the Crown, or who didn't have the freedom to make their own choices. Will this memorial blot out those people's memory? Or does our culture do such a poor job of preserving their memory that it doesn't matter? Does this memorial extend the work of such authors as William C. Nell, who used black Americans' Revolutionary service to argue for their full citizenship in U.S. society, or does it camouflage the realities of slavery in the early republic?

As to the proposed design, for me it doesn't reach the depths of Boston's godawful Irish Famine Memorial, but it's the least appealing part of the project. I half suspect the organizers are making up for the long time it took the nation to recognize these founders by producing a statue that looks like it was erected a century ago.

Don Carleton (Jr.) said...

I'm glad someone agrees with me about Boston's Famine Memorial (being part-Irish, I feel particularly free to tag it as pathetic)!

But I must say you are really impugning the quality of early-twentieth century public sculpture when you suggest that this particular proposed monument "looks like it was erected a century ago." A century ago the St.-Gaudens Sherman monument was still pretty new, and the quality of bronze statuary still pretty high.

J. L. Bell said...

This design doesn't make me think of Saint-Gaudens or other masters. It makes me think of all those anonymous (white) Union soldiers and then doughboys standing in town parks. It looks like an attempt to slip another figure in among them, looking as if it had belonged there all along, because in a way it had. (But then of course the committee wanted women and children represented as well.)