In the fall of 2018, I first met Keith Winstead when he asked me the question “Do you know where Archer Alexander is buried?” Winstead has been researching his family history for over 30 years and had hit one of those proverbial ‘Brick Walls‘ so many genealogists face. Not because his family was black, not because the information wasn’t out there, but because the information he had found was incorrect. Not wrong because someone had whitewashed the information which was our first assumption, but because society just wasn’t ready for the truth.
William Greenleaf Eliot was not only the grandfather of poet T.S. Eliot, he had also founded the first Unitarian Church west of the Mississippi in 1834, and had also founded Eliot Seminary which became Washington University, and the Western Sanitary Commission (WSC). The WSC was a little-known and often misunderstood philanthropical non-profit that brought nurses and hospitals to thousands of Union troops, both black and white, giving the same assistance to U.S. Colored Troops as it did to its regular troops. And it helped those troops and the freedmen erect the first monument to Lincoln in Washington, D.C. in 1876. Archer is the unidentified black man rising beneath Lincoln on the Emancipation Monument in Lincoln Park, in Washington, D.C. that is controversial because his image looks too much like a slave.
Archer’s identity is first revealed to the world in a book by Eliot published in Boston in 1885, five years after Archer’s death. In the book, Eliot states that originally the story was written for his grandchildren, and not intended for publication. A friend, Jesse Benton Fremont, who was the daughter of Thomas Hart Benton who served as one of Missouri’s first U.S. Senators for over 30 years not only urged Eliot to publish the manuscript, but also “tweaked” a few of the facts, and gave it its’ title Archer Alexander: From Slavery to Freedom March 30, 1863.
Archer was actually born in 1806 in Rockbridge County, Virginia to a slave of John Alexander. In 1829, he had been brought to Missouri, in a caravan that had stopped near Louisville, where his son Wesley was left behind. Wesley’s great-great-grandson who was born Cassius Marcellus Clay now known as Muhammad Ali a cousin to Keith Winstead. None of this part of Archer’s story was known in March of 2019 when Muhammad Ali’s brother and various other Clay family members first visited St. Louis.
Research builds upon previous research. That’s why Winstead was having difficulty going further, and could only rely on modern DNA evidence. Not everything in Eliot’s book is factual, but it is actually a product of its time. Today good research relies on actual documented facts that are becoming more and more available due to the work of historians like Dr. Henry Louis Gates. Today’s readers want a juicy disclose-all book that shares the true identities, but that was not always the case. Just as the world was not ready for the actual story of Archer’s life, it was not ready for a monument with a slave that was standing in 1865, when Charlotte Scott first envisioned it. Today we can look back on the great story produced by Chad Davis from St. Louis Public Radio and NPR, and the first visit of Keith Winstead and his family where A Louisville Family Learns About their St. Louis Ties to a Slave that Saved Lives. Learn about their visit at https://news.stlpublicradio.org/arts/2019-03-19/a-louisville-family-learns-about-their-ties-to-a-st-louis-slave-who-saved-lives#stream/0 where you can read or listen any time.
Just as we have come a long way in our recent research of Archer’s life, we have also come a long way in understanding the full story of the monument, thanks to fellow researchers, historians, and writers. Archer was a hero in his own right, an unknown American hero, whose untold story is difficult to share yet needs to be told. Don’t you think the time is right? For more about Archer visit https://archeralexander.wordpress.com/ online anytime.
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