Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Today in Black History - Archer Alexander

Archer Alexander (1810 - 1879) was born into slavery, survived several attempts at recapture after his escape, and was ultimately memorialized as the model for the liberated slave appearing with Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Freedmen’s Memorial in Washington, DC, and in a biography written by his benefactor.

Alexander was born near Richmond, Virginia, sometime around 1810, on a plantation owned by a Presbyterian minister named Delaney. Both his father, Aleck, and mother, Chloe, were slaves owned by Delaney, and the family worked on the plantation until Delaney’s death in approximately 1831. At that time, Alexander became the property of Delaney’s son, Thomas, and moved with him to Missouri. Settling initially in St. Louis, Alexander was hired out as a laborer to a brickyard before moving again with his owner to a farm in St. Charles County. There, he met and married a slave named Louisa, with whom he would have 10 children.

After a period of roughly 10 years, Thomas Delaney decided to move to Louisiana, and sold Alexander to Louisa’s owner, a farmer named Hollman. Alexander worked the Hollman farm for roughly two decades, rising to a position of considerable responsibility as overseer. While slavery was legal in Missouri, it was also a controversial matter, and differing opinions rose in pitch and ferocity in the years leading up to the Civil War. During this time, Alexander was exposed to abolitionist ideas, and determined for himself that a life of freedom was his goal.

With the formal outbreak of war in 1861, lines were drawn and positions hardened. Union forces sought to prevent Missouri from seceding with the Confederate states, but local slave owners were eager to maintain their property and economy, and sympathized with the southern cause. A pro-slavery group, with Hollman among them, cut the supporting timbers under a railroad bridge in February of 1863, compromising its strength so that it would collapse under a Union troop train expected to pass through shortly. Alexander became aware of their treachery, and in the darkness of night, walked five miles to inform a Union supporter. As a result, the Union army was alerted, the bridge was repaired, and catastrophe was averted.

But the danger for Alexander had just begun. He was suspected by the pro-slavery group of having revealed their plot. Learning that they were planning to question him and certain that the outcome would be fatal, Alexander fled. He joined a band of runaway slaves he encountered, but all were taken into captivity by some of the many slave hunters active in the area, and locked up on the second floor of a tavern. Alexander alone managed to escape. He ultimately found his way back to St. Louis, where a sympathetic resident brought him to the attention of a Unitarian minister named William Greenleaf Eliot, who hired Alexander as a farmhand.

Eliot, the founder of Washington University in St. Louis, was strongly opposed to slavery as an institution. He had declared publicly some years before that he would never return an escaped slave
to his or her owner, and although Alexander did not tell him his status, Eliot guessed that he was a runaway. Acting on his principles, Eliot took measures to prevent his recapture, securing a certificate from the local marshal entrusting Alexander to his care for a minimum of 30 days. He then contacted Hollman, Alexander’s owner, with an anonymous offer to purchase the slave’s freedom at market price.

But the vindictive Hollman determined Alexander’s whereabouts, and at the expiration of the protected period, had him taken from Eliot’s home and beaten by bounty hunters. Eliot learned where Alexander was being held, and abetted by the martial law provisions in effect in Missouri, was able to have him returned to his home. He tried once more to come to terms with Hollman, failed, and then relocated Alexander to a friend’s farm in the non-slavery state of Illinois. When the Emancipation Proclamation began to take effect in Missouri in June of 1863 on a gradual basis, Alexander returned to Eliot’s farm. From there he was able to reach his wife, and Louisa escaped from her servitude with their teenage daughter to join him. Full emancipation for the family and all slaves in Missouri took effect in January of 1865, the year of President Lincoln’s assassination.

In response to that tragedy, a number of former slaves worked to create a monument to Lincoln, raising money to commission a statue. Eliot, aware of their efforts, had an opportunity to speak
with the selected sculptor, Thomas Ball, and gave him a photograph of Alexander for use as a model. The completed “Emancipation Memorial,” also known as the Lincoln Freedmen’s Memorial, was dedicated by Frederick Douglass, himself a former slave, in 1876 at a Washington ceremony that included President Ulysses S. Grant. It shows a black man, modeled after Alexander, kneeling before Lincoln and overcome with emotion at just having been freed.

Alexander died roughly three years later in about 1879, having seen photographs of the sculpture. He was memorialized again, this time by Eliot himself, who wrote a biography published six years later in 1885 entitled The Story of Archer Alexander: From Slavery to Freedom, March 30, 1863. By Eliot’s own account, Alexander passed away thanking God that he had died in freedom, a fitting reminder of the earliest years of the struggle for African American liberty.

*Article Courtesy of