African Americans and Lady Liberty

The aforementioned politics behind the depiction of Lady Freedom's headdress explains some of irony behind early American symbols of "Freedom" (see Politics: The Agendas Behind the Monuments): While carefully attending to the relief of American colonists upon winning liberty from Britain, and while simultaneously achieving a symbol of America's freedom to pursue its Manifest Destiny, the creation of Crawford's Lady Freedom blindly ignored the inhumane enslavement of thousands of someday-to-be American citizens. "Freedom," it seems, only applied to the already free. Even more ironic is the fact that Lady Freedom's physical assemblage could not have happened without a slave named Philip Reed, a Maryland man who cast the entire statue as soon as its pieces arrived in one place (see Journeys: Tracing the Paths of Our Lady Liberties.) The hypocrisy doubles over on itself: America's freedom was borne upon the backs of those deprived of freedom by Americans themselves.

Blood-chilling events in Springfield, Missouri on the evening of April 14, 1906 also emphasize the ironies. That night three black men were lynched, hung from a light tower, and burned. At the top of the tower, lifelessly observing the scene, stood a replica of the Statue of Liberty. The thousands of cheering bigots in the crowd below may not have ever absorbed the irony, but a cartoonist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch captured the moment with the drawing below.

The shadow made by Liberty's arm forms the outline of a gallows on the ground. The caption read, "O Liberty, What Crimes are Committed in thy Name!". (Reprinted from Lederer, "And Then They Sang a Sabbath Song," Springfield! (May 1981); 26.)

The lynching was instigated by reports that a white woman from out of town had been raped by two black men. Two young black men were picked up as suspects and held in the county jail. Later that evening, as police and city officials stood by, a mad mob raided the jail. Dozens of already convicted criminals were let free as the leaders of the mob took the two black men, not yet given an indictment or trial, out of the jail and out to the light tower. By this time, one of the two men may already have died from blows to the head. Both were strung up, hung and then burned. Later that night the mob went back to the jail and found one more African American--a man who was unable to escape from his cell because of a jammed lock. He too was strung up and burned. At dawn the next day, Easter Morning, townspeople visited the embers, some taking photographs that they would later sell as souveniers.

The two black men were later found to be innocent of the supposed crime, and the tale of the rape was determined to be a hoax. A few members of the mob were brought to trial; all were acquitted. Blacks fled Springfield by the hundreds; any evidence of the improved race relations that had existed before the lynching was completely destroyed.

The Statue of Liberty, meanwhile, was removed from the light tower and kept in a resident's backyard until it decayed. Even symbols of freedom, it seems, could not mask American injustice any longer.

For a well-documented account of the lynching and its effect on Springfield, see Katherine Lederer, "And Then They Sang a Sabbath Song," a three-part series published in the magazine, Springfield! in April 1981, pp. 26-29, 33-36 and June 1981, pp. 24- 26.


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