The Face Of Freedom

The Face Of Freedom

THE EMANCIPATION MEMORIAL, sculpted by Thomas Ball and erected in Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C., 1876.

The Face Of Freedom
The Face Of Freedom

ARCHER ALEXANDER (1806–1880) is the third great-grandfather of boxing great Muhammad Ali (1942-2016).

The Face Of Freedom

ABOVE, Keith Winstead (right), a third greatgrandson of Archer Alexander, meets Tom Alexander, a descendant of John Alexander, at the historic Cherry Grove state in Fairfield last year. AT RIGHT is the railroad bridge at Peruque Creek, Mo., guarded by Union home guard troops during the Civil War. Archer Alexander warned the troops that the bridge had been sabotaged. The historic photo is courtesy of the St. Charles County Historical Society Archives, Mo.

The Face Of Freedom
Escaped Slave’s Daring, Inspiring Story Comes Home

This article was written by Eric Wilson, executive director of the Rockbridge Historical Society, for the next piece in the “Local Black Histories” series on the RHS website. New, original research comes from historian Dorris Keeven-Franke, who visited Lexington in 2019. For more details, see her

His name is Archer Alexander.

You won’t find either name on his statue in the nation’s capital; even its plaque. But now his name echoes resonantly, again, in Rockbridge County.

He was born here in 1806, enslaved.

In August 1829, he was taken west in an 800-mile, five-family caravan, moving from the nation’s largest slave state, Virginia, to its newest, Missouri.

In February 1863, he made the decision to free himself: running away to Union lines, foiling a plot by Confederate sympathizers to sabotage a railroad bridge, saving scores of lives.

After the Civil War, he rose up - monumentally.

He became the national face, quite literally, for the Emancipation Memorial that was installed in Washington, D.C.: the anonymous, self-emancipated hero who was chosen to accompany President Lincoln to ground the bronze-cast statue in Lincoln Park. Dedicated by Frederick Douglass in 1876, it was funded entirely by the contributions of former slaves.

What most people who see the statue don’t know, though, is Archer Alexander’s distinctive history, and his own efforts in freeing himself and in aiding American war efforts to free others.


Archer Alexander died in St. Louis in 1880. His first wife, Louisa, was also born in Rockbridge ca. 1808, was taken on that same westward journey, along with their newborn son, Wesley. The couple was separated by an estate executor in the 1840s. But after fleeing to St. Louis during the Civil War, and hiding in Illinois, Archer paid $25 to a German friend to smuggle Louisa to join him. Archer noted that in their 30 years of marriage, they had 10 children together.

Their many descendants would include, most famously, Muhammad Ali.

After becoming boxing’s heavyweight champion of the world, Ali then famously claimed his own name, when converting to Islam. Over the next 50 years he would establish a lasting legacy as a global icon and a civil rights pioneer.

But it would be Keith Winstead (like Ali, a third-great-grandson of Archer and a Louisville native) who brought their common ancestor’s story home to Rockbridge.

In July 2019, Winstead visited the Rockbridge Historical Society Museum and Washington and Lee’s library, traveling with Dorris Keeven-Franke, a St. Louis-based historian, genealogist and author. Together, they’d returned to Virginia to further research Archer’s ancestry and historical contexts. From Lexington, she drove back to St. Louis, tracking the very route that was remarkably chronicled in William Campbell’s 1829 journal (its script now archived with RHS Collections at W&L, but not broadly known until now).

These records are now stitched into Winstead’s DNA research; together they weave a remarkably rich tapestry of community and family-based research.

When I met with them in Lexington last summer, I was struck by the range and depth of their research, and the variety of resources and partners they’ve engaged, jointly “quilting history.” Their genealogical research interweaves DNA and documents, threaded through local and national archives. The unique histories and newly visible figure of Archer Alexander – both here in Rockbridge and nationally – illuminate other colors and patterns in the complex fabric of history.

A year later, with continued debates about Archer’s and other monuments, the multimedia narratives they’ve shaped and shared bring fresh context to current conversations about history and legacy. Most broadly, The Freedmen’s Memorial that Archer anchors prompts useful questions not just about whom we memorialize, but how, and why. To quote the closing line of “Hamilton,” the monumental musical history of the moment: ‘Who tells your story?’ Are websites now new forms of publicly accessible monuments? Are DNA records memorials in their own right, now trusted key archives? How are the insights of descendant families crucial to specifically local history?

From Virginia To Missouri

When Archer was 16, his father Aleck was sold south from Rockbridge by John Alexander. According to Archer’s first biography in 1885, Aleck was seen as “too uppity, [he] had somehow the skill of being able to read, and talked about being free.” The threat of literacy is a conventional trope in literary slave narratives. But it was also a crime in Virginia, highlighting the power and vulnerability that could instantly sever family ties of the enslaved.

In 1828, James Henry Alexander would inherit his father John’s human property, including Archer. The Alexanders were one of one of the earliest, most prominent families to settle what would become Rockbridge County. Many Alexanders still live in Rockbridge today, as well as Campbells, Wilsons, McClures and McCluers, whose family ancestors would trek to Missouri. William Campbell’s daily journal chronicles the 50-person, four-wagon caravan, including the 25 enslaved men, women, and children itemized among them.

In Missouri, Archer’s own courage and agency would earn respect among educational and political leaders in St. Louis, and would set the stage for his rise to national prominence, before his death in 1880.


Most famous among those efforts was a daring venture during the Civil War, when Missouri was a fiercely divided battleground between Confederate and Union troops and their civilian sympathizers.

Dramatically narrated in Keeven-Franke’s, Archer risked his life to foil a plot against local Union troops:

“On a cold night in February 1863, Archer Alexander would overhear the men in his neighborhood [Southern sympathizers] bragging to each other on their latest achievement. They had surreptitiously managed to saw the timbers on the wooden railroad bridge that would collapse under the weight of the next train to pass over. They also had guns stored in James Campbell’s ice house.

“Knowing what this would mean, Archer took off after dark and made his way five miles to the north, in order to alert Union troops known as “Krekel’s Dutch.” When the plans did not succeed, suspicion of who had alerted the Union troops fell quickly upon Archer.

“Knowing he could not stay in St. Charles, and fearing the lynch mob that was forming, he fled towards St. Louis. There were landmarks and those that he could trust to help him make his way. He had not gone far, and had fallen in with two others, when the slave patrol caught him near the river. They celebrated their achievement by stashing the slaves in a second floor bedroom over an inn. Archer, however, was able to climb from an open window, and after several days of making his way at night and sleeping during the day, he was able to make it to St. Louis.”

Through his own initiative and ingenuity – cued by a sort of “‘underground railroad” – Archer would reach a still-tentative freedom. In St. Louis, he connected with the man who took him in as a fugitive slave, helped him secure his legal freedom, and would memorialize both through sculpture and biography.

A celebrated Unitarian minister, William Greenleaf Eliot was the future founder of Washington University, a political ally of President Lincoln, and founding head the Western Sanitary Commission, a war relief agency that served wartime refugees, and fugitives, even before the Freedmen’s Bureau.

Eliot’s deep admiration for Archer’s integrity and selfdetermination led him to publish “Archer Alexander, from Slavery to Freedom” in 1885. But Eliot’s leadership of the Sanitary Commission, tasked with the creation of a national Emancipation Memorial, would enable him to personally recommend that Archer stand as its model, providing “his likeness in face and figure.” The first funds came from Charlotte Scott, a formerly enslaved woman from Virginia. Her $5 seed money grew to over $16,000, provided entirely by freedpeople.

New Looks

Winstead and Keeven-Franke had traveled to Rockbridge to more personally explore family roots, and to reposition Archer’s story within widening attention through National Public Radio, The New York Times, and other media outlets.

But this summer, the story of his memorial is playing out on an international and highly publicized stage. Added attention from the Black Lives Matters movement has brought many to rethink the relation between Alexander and Lincoln shown in the memorial. And a just-discovered letter from Frederick Douglass reveals his own suggestion that another statue of an independent “negro citizen” stand next to the pair, “erect on his feet like a man.”

While the memorial is coming under scrutiny because some believe Alexander’s figure appears subordinated, those who know his story - that he’d been chosen precisely because he did free himself – may instead see the determined gaze and muscles in his figure in an empowering light.

He has already broken his own chains.

Individuals and groups both bring multiple perspectives to historical artifacts, texts and events that command broad attention: whether the two copies of this statue (in D.C.’s post-Civil War Lincoln Park, or near the Revolutionary Boston Common), or the local memorials that have been variously created, commemorated and critiqued in Lexington and Rockbridge from 1870 to 2020.

A Final Return To Fairfield

While in Rockbridge, Keith and Dorris traveled to local sites and homes where these ancestral families lived. Among them was Fairfield’s Cherry Grove. Historically owned by branches of the Alexander and McDowell families, among others, it was the birthplace of future Virginia Governor James McDowell, and his granddaughter Jessie (McDowell) Benton Fremont; she would become influential in Missouri herself and, according to Keeven-Franke, may even have written the Rockbridge chapter for her friend Eliot’s biography of Archer.

This Virginia landmark now operates as a dairy farm owned Tom Alexander, descended from John Alexander himself. The two Alexander descendants met there, ancestral footprints stretching back to the 18th century, newly reconnected across the “color line,” as W.E.B. duBois’ enduring phrase still echoes. The photograph of them included with this story provides its own memorable and meaningful portrait in history, colored by the complex ties that both bind and bridge between past and present.

Archer Alexander’s story will continue to grow, spread, and stand on new grounds. Already at RHS, new inquiries are calling into Rockbridge, where Archer began his life, his marriage, his family, and his self-determined rise to freedom.

The News-Gazette

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