1863, cast after 1863
19 3/4 x 14 1/4 x 10 1/2 in.
Base, p.r. front edge, inscribed: J. Q. A. Ward. Sc\
Across arch of manacle, inscribed: FORT WAGNER JULY 18TH 1863
Across barrel of manacle, inscribed: 54th Mass. \ Colored Vols
Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas
An opponent of slavery, Ward created The Freedman shortly after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing individuals enslaved within Confederate states. Portraying a seated Black man wearing broken shackles, this work marked a new way of portraying emancipation in sculpture. Typically, 19th-century abolitionist imagery portrayed enslaved people as passive, awaiting liberation by White saviors. In contrast, Ward’s figure is someone who has actively sought out and attained his own freedom, with an upturned gaze that conveys agency and strength. Ward explained that the pose was calculated “to express not one set free by any proclamation, so much as by his own love of freedom and a conscious power to break things.”
This cast of The Freedman is unique. Of eight known to exist, it is the only one with an operable shackle and key, and the only one with a carved inscription honoring the Massachusetts 54th, a regiment of Black soldiers who served during the Civil War.
—Text taken from the Carter Handbook (2023)
Created during the Civil War era, abolitionist and artist John Quincy Adams Ward’s shiny, smooth, black bronze sculpture The Freedman was inspired by President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Ward created different versions of the same subject, but this almost 20-inch sculpture is meant to be viewed in the round.
Here the sculptor depicts a seminude Black man sitting on a tree stump, wearing a broken manacle on his left wrist and holding one that dangles from his right hand. The man hinges forward at his waist, slightly twisting his torso to his right. He holds his head up, staring out as if looking toward his uncertain future. He has short, curly hair that is tight, his eyes are open, and a short mustache and beard surrounds his closed lips. His left shoulder dips lower than his right, and he rests his left elbow on his left knee which is bent. His chest opens out and his hand grips a taller part of the tree stump. His shoeless left foot is completely flat on the ground, while his right heel rests on the base of the tree stump. His toes are flat and spread on the ground. He has a small cloth wrapped around his waist that drapes over the top half of his thighs.
Ward paid close attention to bodily details, seen is the anatomical accuracy of the man’s muscles and veins, and particularly in the hands and feet. The artist wanted to be sure to capture this figure with as much dignity as possible, and avoided including any stereotypes that were so often used when depicting Black Americans in the past. Ward modeled this sculpture from life and this work is often acknowledged as the first and most accurate sculptural representation of a Black person.
The sculpture sits on a bronze, oval base that is a little over 14 inches long and is about a half inch high. The artist inscribed his name, J.Q.A. Ward, on the raised edge under his left foot.
Part of this artwork, but not attached to the figure is a shiny brass key. It lays flat on its side, directly on the podium, a few inches from the sitter’s left foot. The key is roughly 2.5 inches long, and a little under 2 inches wide. The key is a narrow cylinder with two flat wings that have holes in the center. It unlocks the manacle that is still on the man’s wrist.
Because of Ward’s masterful execution and powerful message, this small sculpture made a big statement then and continues to do so today.