Photo courtesy of the DC SHPO
Laid out in L’Enfant’s plan for Washington as a square to hold a monumental column from which point all distances on the continent would be measured, Lincoln Park was slow to develop, and, in fact, was used for years as a dumping ground. During the Civil War, it was the site of Lincoln Hospital, named after the President, and among the places visited by Walt Whitman, who made rounds to comfort the injured and dying soldiers. The name apparently stuck and, in 1867, Congress authorized it to be called Lincoln Square as a memorial to the martyred leader, the first site to bear his name.
Consecrating the place to Lincoln’s memory really took hold several years later, however, through the efforts begun shortly after the assassination by an African American woman named Charlotte Scott of Virginia. Using her first $5 earned in freedom, Scott kicked-off a fund raising campaign among freed blacks as a way of paying homage to the President who had issued the Emancipation Proclamation that liberated the slaves in the Confederate States. The campaign for the Freedmen’s Memorial Monument to Abraham Lincoln, as it was to be known, was not the only effort of the time to build a monument to Lincoln; however, as the only one soliciting contributions exclusively from those who had most directly benefited from Lincoln’s act of emancipation it had a special appeal.
Historic postcard of Lincoln Park, c. 1900
Postcard courtesy of Stephen Morris
The funds were collected solely from freed slaves (primarily from African American Union veterans), however, the organization controlling the effort and keeping the funds was a white-run, war-relief agency based in St.Louis, the Western Sanitary Commission. The monument was designed by Thomas Ball, cast in Munich in 1875 and shipped to Washington in 1876. Congress accepted the Emancipation Group, as it came to be known, from the “colored citizens of the United States” for placement in Lincoln Square and appropriated $3,000 for a pedestal upon which it would rest.
In 1959 Congress authorized the National Council of Negro Women to build a memorial to its founder, Mary McLeod Bethune, a well-known African American educator and government advisor. Conceived originally to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1963, the monument was not dedicated until 1974 because of problems with fundraising (the bronze memorial ended up costing $400,000) and the priority given by the Council, an umbrella organization of African American women’s groups, to the efforts of the Civil Rights movement. The sculptor of the Bethune Memorial was Robert Berks, an artist based in New York who also sculpted the gigantic Kennedy bust in the Grand Foyer of Washington’s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. When it was dedicated in 1974, the Bethune Memorial was the first statue of an African American or a woman of any race on public park land in Washington. (The only previous statue of an African American was that of the freed slave in the Emancipation Group, which was based on Alexander Archer, the last man captured under the Fugitive Slave Act).
Lincoln Park, maintained by the National Park Service, is a public park square that is accessible to the public.