Archer Alexander was the model for the slave depicted in the Lincoln Freedmen Memorial in Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C. Thought to be the last slave captured in Missouri under the terms of the Fugitive Slave Act, Alexander was working at the time for William Greenleaf Eliot, a minister in the Unitarian Church and grandfather of poet T S. Eliot. Reverend Eliot was a staunch abolitionist who put up his own money to secure Alexander's freedom. He later wrote Alexander's life story and published the biography in 1885 with the title The Story of Archer Alexander: From Slavery to Freedom, March 30, 1863.
Alexander was born around 1810 outside Richmond, Virginia. His mother, Chloe, and father, Aleck, were the property of a Presbyterian minister named Delaney, and they worked on the Delaney plantation, Kalorama. Around 1831, after the elder Delaney died, his son, Thomas Delaney, took Alexander to Missouri. Slavery was permitted there, but it was a controversial subject that divided Missouri residents and had also been the subject of a significant congressional debate a decade earlier.
Tom Delaney hired Alexander out for a time to a St. Louis brickyard called Letcher & Bobbs, before moving to a farm in St. Charles County. There Alexander married a slave woman named Louisa, with whom he had ten children. In the early 1840s, Delaney decided to move to Louisiana, where his wife's family was from, and he sold Alexander to Louisa's owner, a man named Hollman. Alexander spent the next twenty or so years as a trusted manager of the Hollman farm.
Alerts Union Army to Confederate Sabotage
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Missouri became a battleground for pro- and anti-slavery factions. Many residents supported the Confederate cause and wanted to keep their slaves, but Union troops moved quickly to prevent Missouri from seceding along with the rebel Southern states. Tensions were high, and in February of 1863 a pro-slavery group cut the wooden timbers below a bridge that was expecting to bear the weight of a trainload of Union soldiers in the next day or two. Hollman was part of this group, and when Alexander learned of the sabotage, he walked five miles in the middle of the night to tell someone he knew was sympathetic to the Union cause. That man alerted others, and the bridge was repaired in time.
Hollman's fellow Confederate supporters suspected Alexander as the informant, and plans were made to question him. Realizing he would likely be killed, Alexander fled Hollman's farm, leaving behind his wife and family. He met up with a group of runaway slaves, but all were captured by slave hunters and taken to a tavern for the night. The bounty hunters locked them in an upstairs room and then spent the night drinking. Alexander managed a solo escape from the second-floor window when the guard dog below was distracted. He made his way to St. Louis, where he asked a sympathetic butcher to help him find a job. The butcher, a Dutch immigrant, put him in touch with William Greenleaf Eliot.
Eliot and his family lived in a well-appointed house that had been built by a Missouri governor some years before. He hired Alexander to take care of the farm, though Alexander admitted that he was a runaway slave. Eliot, a Unitarian minister and founder of Washington University in St. Louis, was morally opposed to slavery. He asked the local marshal for help, and, according to the biography, obtained a certificate that read: "The colored man named Archer Alexander, supposed to be the slave of a rebel master, is hereby permitted to remain in the service of W. G. Eliot until legal right to his services shall be established by such party, if any, as may claim them. Not to exceed thirty days unless extended."
- c. 1810
- Born near Richmond, Virginia
- Moves to Missouri
- Becomes a fugitive slave
- Freed by state law
- Immortalized in bronze in the Lincoln Freedmen Memorial
- Dies in St. Louis, Missouri on December 8
- Biography, The Story of Archer Alexander: From Slavery to Freedom, March 30, 1863, is published in Boston
Hides in Illinois
Eliot sent word, anonymously, to Hollman and offered to pay the full market price for Alexander. Hollman man-aged to learn his slave's whereabouts, and at the end of the thirty-day period Alexander was forcibly taken from the property—and viciously beaten in front of Eliot's young children—by slave hunters. Technically, because martial law had been declared in Missouri, captured runaway slaves were supposed to be handed over to Union Army troops for protection. Eliot found out where Alexander was being held and used his connections to have him brought back to his property. After another unsuccessful attempt to negotiate a purchase with Hollman, Eliot sent Alexander to safety in Alton, Illinois, which was not a slave state, to work on a friend's farm.
President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was issued in September 1862 and went into effect on the first day of 1863, but it only freed slaves in Confederate states that were still in rebellion. Slaves in border states which had not seceded, such as Missouri, were not immediately affected by the decree. But Missouri's lawmakers enacted a gradual emancipation law in June 1863, and Alexander was able to return to Eliot's farm. "We had all by this time become so attached to him, and felt so great respect for his manly, patient character, that we would have spared neither cost nor pains to secure his freedom beyond all possible contingency," wrote Eliot in his biography of Alexander. "He settled down quietly to his work, earning his wages well, and taking care of every thing on the four-acre lot as if it were all his own."
Alexander managed to contact his wife Louisa, and she escaped with their teenaged daughter to Eliot's farm. All became free in January 1865, when slavery was formally abolished in Missouri at the state convention. One of their sons—named Thomas in honor of the younger Delaney who had brought Alexander to Missouri—was one of the war's casualties, having joined one of the newly formed Union regiments for blacks. In the early 1870s, an image of Alexander was sent to Thomas Ball, the sculptor commissioned by a group of freed slaves who had collected funds to erect a monument to Lincoln, who was assassinated in 1865. "Emancipation" depicts an African American man kneeling before the president, with his arms outstretched as if he is breaking the chains that bind him. Sometimes called the Lincoln Freedmen's Memorial, the monument was dedicated by Frederick Douglass at an 1876 ceremony.
Alexander was not at that ceremony, but did see photographs of the monument before his death in 1879. Six years after his death, Eliot's biography of him was published in Boston. "It is the record of a humble life, but one which was conformed, up to the full measure of ability, to the law of the gospel," the reverend concluded. "I have felt as proud of the long-continued friendship and confidence of Archer Alexander as of any one I have known."
Eliot, William G. The Story of Archer Alexander: From Slavery to Freedom, March 30, 1863. Boston: Cupples, Upham, and Company, 1885.
Meyer, Jeffrey F. Myths in Stone: Religious Dimensions of Washington, D.C. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2001.
"Archer Alexander—Freedoms Memorial." Ebony Society of Philatelic Events and Reflections (ESPER). http://esperstamps.org/aa3.htm(Accessed 28 December 2005).