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Course: For teachers > Unit 2

Lesson 3: Go deeper: oppression and resistance

Representing freedom during the Civil War

John Quincy Adams Ward's sculpture, The Freedman, portrays a freed African-American slave during the Civil War. The figure's dynamic pose, broken manacles, and focused gaze symbolize his struggle for freedom. This groundbreaking artwork challenges traditional depictions of slavery and emphasizes the individual's role in their own liberation. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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  • leaf blue style avatar for user Harsimran Bath
    I feel his facial emotions convey a sense of concern, especially since he is looking back. This sculpture was created at a time when slaves or freed slaves were not sure what would freedom mean for them. Can we have more discussion on the facial expression and how it connects to the subject matter and Ward's intentions?
    (11 votes)
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Video transcript

- We're in the Amon Carter Museum of American Art looking at a very important sculpture. John Quincy Adams Ward's The Freedman. They exhibited in 1863, smack in the middle of the Civil War. - What we see is an African-American male seated on what looks like a tree stump and he is seated in a coiled position with his left leg outstretched and his right leg tucked up against the stump leaning forward. - By coiled, you mean that his torso is moving in the opposite direction of his legs, so there's a torsion in his body that immediately gives the figure a sense of movement and energy. - He looks as if he could pop up at any moment or sink down at any moment. - So, the title tells us what we're looking at. We're looking at an African-American man, a slave who has been freed. It was just in 1862 that Abraham Lincoln warned that he was going to issue The Emancipation Proclamation on January 1st of 1863, that would free all the slaves, in those states that were still in rebellion against the Union. - We often look at this as a direct response to The Emancipation Proclamation. On the figure's left wrist, we have an attached enclosed manacle with a link dangling, and in the right hand, clutched in the fist, the other unattached manacle, hanging from his hand. And there's an implication that this person is the author of his own freedom, and also that that freedom is not complete. - So although we're not seeing him actually breaking these chains of slavery, there is certainly the implication, the sense of strength in this figure, that he could have done that, and the way that he's holding one and still bound with the other gives us that sense of someone in between freedom and slavery, and certainly we know that there were many slaves, after the Emancipation Proclamation, were making their way to Union lines, to freedom. - If you look at the facial expression, the knit brow and the focused gaze, it looks as though he has a sense of his purpose and his direction. Ward has been so specific about the details of the face, the facial hair, this is not a very young man, this is someone with experience. - And we know that Ward likely modeled this from life, and while we may be used to seeing sculptural images of African-Americans, this was something that was incredibly rare in the mid-19th century. - This is ground-breaking in its focus on a single African-American figure, not in a position of subjugation. - This is freedom that he has taken into his own hands, so many images of slavery that we see coming out of the abolitionist movement, the movement to abolish slavery, shows slaves in this position of subjugation, pleading for sympathy, and even images after the Civil War show African-Americans being granted their freedom, often by President Lincoln. So this idea is very self-congratulatory to white politicians, and puts the power in their hands, and not the power in African-Americans who did so much to fight for their freedom. - We also have on the dangling manacle a reference to the Massachusetts 54th, an all African-American unit in the Union Army who led an assault on Fort Wagner under the command of Robert Gould Shaw, and many many of those soldiers died in the cause. And so, Ward is looking in this particular cast of the sculpture at these soldiers as important members of the Union Army and as potential citizens. - Freedom is very much a long struggle for these rights of education, citizenship, and Ward captures that idea of process, not of something complete and finished. - Many people see when they look at this sculpture that frustration with the speed of that process with one manacle still firmly attached, we can't help but think that the freedom is slow in coming, and that Ward might be frustrated with this pace. And we know that Henry Kirke Brown, who's the teacher of John Quincy Adams Ward, and Ward himself were both sympathetic to the abolitionist cause. - If we see him as a fugitive slave, or a slave on the path to freedom in some way, nudity doesn't make a lot of sense. - These aren't practical travel clothes. The emphasis is on this perfect human body, this beautiful human body, and we know that Ward and his contemporary sculptors are all looking back to the classical era for their inspiration. - This combination of the real, which we see in his features and the expression and the manacles, but also elevating him by recalling this tradition of Ancient Greek sculpture, making him seem noble and heroic. - And perhaps demanding his humanity. - And it's so interesting to me that as his body moves forward, he also looks back. So again that sense of the past and the future here. What's so special about this casting is that it has a key. - The most exciting thing and the most intriguing thing often to people about this sculpture is the brass key, so we could use that to pop open the manacle, which seems a great amount of detail to include if he wasn't focused on that idea of freedom and unlocking some sort of role or future for emancipated slaves in the American Union. - It's interesting to think about Ward's own words about his intention for this sculpture, he wrote :