Best Friends

Things are not always as they appear. As a writer, I have struggled for the past few years with the question: did William Greenleaf Eliot realize that his book THE STORY OF ARCHER ALEXANDER FROM SLAVERY TO FREEDOM MARCH 30, 1863 would be used to argue the very existence of the Emancipation Monument?  The very same monument he worked so hard during his lifetime to see happen? Conceived in 1865, and erected in 1876, by the former enslaved of America “to make a monument to Massa Lincoln, the best friend the colored people ever had” with the image of Archer rising beneath Lincoln’s outstretched hand was as politically correct as Eliot’s book was for its time.  Today Eliot’s Story and his work for the monument should not be judged because he was white, any more than Archer Alexander’s image should be criticized because he was portrayed as enslaved.

In 1885, Eliiot wrote “THE following narrative was prepared without intention of publication; but I have been led to think that it may be of use, not only as a reminiscence of the “war of secession,” but as a fair presentation of slavery in the Border States for the twenty or thirty years preceding the outbreak of hostilities.” I often wonder how many of its readers will ever know how much Eliot’s work was whitewashed prior to publication. Simply because of its’ presentation of slavery in the Border States. We shouldn’t criticize Eliot as he may have actually written the true story to begin with. In examining Eliot’s Story we see that his motive was only to share Archer’s life.

I don’t believe Eliot knew Archer as well as he would have liked his readers believe. Eliot is a Unitarian minister, accustomed to having his audience sit quietly in their pews rapt with his sermons. As a friend of mine says “A good minister never let the facts get in the way of a good sermon.” When Eliot attempted to expound upon the current issue of slavery, half of the parishioners left avowing  never to return. Weighing the financial support for his church’s mission against his personal needs to speak out on the issue of slavery, Eliot instead chose to turn to the use of a ‘pen name’ in the local newspapers.

After years of research I have learned that for whatever reasons, the location of Archer’s grave, age, and owners are not correct in Eliot’s small book. In my efforts to fact check I have also discovered some very important points to Archer’s STORY. I know now that it is  even more amazing than what Eliot was able to share in his day. It is indeed a story for the ages, and as Eliot hoped, a story that “mutual forbearance may lead to increasing mutual affection and respect.”

Emancipation Monument

The image of Archer Alexander on the Emancipation Monument is hard to bear, as it portrays a partially dressed black man in what is often mistakenly perceived as submissive. Archer is actually an “emancipated slave and a free man by virtue of the proclamation of the President of the United States…for services to the United States military forces”. As Eliot says “his own hands had helped to break the chains that bound him” Eliot knew this better than anyone. As part of the Western Sanitary Commission, which would work with the hundreds of thousands of fugitive slaves that fled north to Missouri during the Civil War, Archer would be the last under Civil law. That is why the commission was the only organization in America that would take on helping the former enslaved erect this monument.  We must look at this story through the eyes of that time and must remember that U.S. Colored Troops’ Regimental leaders were ‘white men’ too.

On April 11, 1865 a man assassinated one of the greatest Presidents this country has ever known because of his proclamation on January 1st, 1863. That is what Charlotte Scott meant when she said he was the “best friends” and that is what Eliot wanted people to see when he wrote “His freedom came directly from the hand of President Lincoln” Eliot’s book shares the story of the friendship of two men, one black and one white. We must recall it is also the story of  the complications and difficulties of the “irrepressible conflict,” and how hard it was fully to maintain one’s self-respect under the necessities of deliberate and cautious action; to speak plainly without giving such degree of offence as would prevent one from speaking at all.”  Let us not judge actions in history against today’s standards, after all the Emancipation Monument is really a testimony to the life of President Abraham Lincoln, by several thousand of his ‘best friends”.

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