The story of Archer Alexander and William Greenleaf Eliot

Yesterday, I had the privilege of participating in the installation of Laurie Maffly-Kipp as the Archer Alexander professor.  Laurie and I have worked together for many years, as we were both at UNC before coming to Wash U.

I got to read the story of Archer Alexander, which is truly inspirational.  Here’s the story:

Remarks at Laurie Maffly-Kipp’s installation

October 30, 2014

Archer Alexander was born in the early 1800s into a life of slavery on a plantation owned by a Presbyterian minister.  Both of his parents were slaves on the plantation, and the family worked there until the minister’s death.  At that time, Mr. Alexander became the property of the minister’s son who settled on a farm in St. Charles County, Missouri.  There, Archer Alexander met and married another slave named Louisa and raised 10 children.

While slavery was legal in Missouri, it was a subject of great controversy leading up to the Civil War and many slaves, including Mr. Alexander, were exposed to abolitionist ideas.  He resolved to gain freedom for himself and his family.

With the formal outbreak of war in 1861, Union forces sought to prevent Missouri from seceding with the Confederate states, but many – including Archer Alexander’s owner – sympathized with the south.  They would often speak freely within earshot of Mr. Alexander, and one night he learned of a plot to cut the supporting timbers under a railroad bridge so that it would collapse under the weight of the Union troops who were expected to pass through shortly.  Mr. Alexander became aware of the plan, and in the darkness of night, he walked five miles to alert the Union army.  The bridge was repaired and catastrophe was averted, but the danger for Mr. Alexander had just begun.  Local men suspected Mr. Alexander as the traitor, and ordered him to come before an examination committee to be judged.  During the night, he decided to run rather than face the whipping or execution that awaited him.  He escaped to St. Louis and began to look for work.

One morning, William Greenleaf Eliot’s wife, Abigail, went to market at the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Market Street and met Archer Alexander, who helped her carry her basket of groceries home.  Dr. Eliot, the founder of Washington University, offered Mr. Alexander paid employment and got an official permit from the local law enforcement office. Mr. Alexander soon gained the affection of the entire Eliot family.

William Greenleaf Eliot was strongly opposed to slavery and had declared publicly that he would never return an escaped slave to his or her owner.  He decided that he would like to earn Mr. Alexander’s emancipation by offering his legal owner a sum of money for his freedom. The plan backfired, however, and soon a group of men with clubs came to reclaim Mr. Alexander, bludgeoning him right in front of the Eliot children and dragging him from Eliot’s yard.

When Dr. Eliot returned from his duties at the university and learned what had happened, he got his friend, the local marshal, to send detectives to catch up with the gang of men.  They did, and by nightfall, the captors were locked in the military prison located at 5th and Myrtle Streets.  To ensure Mr. Alexander’s continued safety, Dr. Eliot found him a place to work, at liberal wages, for his friend, William H. Smith, in Alton, Illinois.

On January 11, 1865, when all slaves in Missouri were freed, Dr. Eliot helped Archer Alexander reunite with Louisa and their children, and he came back to work on the Eliot’s farm.

In April 1865, in response to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, a number of former slaves raised money to commission a memorial statue.  Dr. Eliot shared a photograph of Archer Alexander with the sculptor, and the completed statue, called the Emancipation Memorial, shows President Lincoln holding the Emancipation Proclamation before a man modeled after Archer Alexander.  In the statue, the man is kneeling with his arms extended to show his shackles have been broken.  A heroic-size version of the statue was unveiled in Lincoln Park, just east of the U.S. Capital Building, on the 11th anniversary of President Lincoln’s death.  Frederick Douglass delivered the keynote address that day before President Ulysses S. Grant and an audience of over 25,000.

Below the figures on the base is inscribed one of the concluding phrases of the Emancipation Proclamation: “On this act I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.”  Several versions of the statue were completed, and the marble model of the original statue, donated to Washington University by William Greenleaf Eliot, is on display today.

Mr. Alexander saw photographs of the completed work, but died shortly after the dedication of the sculpture.  He was memorialized a second time by his friend William Greenleaf Eliot who penned a biography entitled The Story of Archer Alexander: From Slavery to Freedom, March 30, 1863.  By Dr. Eliot’s account, Archer Alexander passed away thanking God that he had died in freedom.

I am pleased that the university has elected to commemorate Archer Alexander in the naming of this professorship, and I congratulate Professor Maffly-Kipp on the honor of becoming the first to hold the title.



  1. I was advised of the comments of Holden Thorp of Archer Alexander. My name is Errol D. Alexander, PhD and a direct ancestor of Archer Alexander. I am grateful of an installation of a Professorship in his name at the University of Washington. However there were key facts not accurately reflected in proceedings. Since this is coming from for an academic, and passed on by an academic to several news sources it should be corrected. But unfortunately, it is typical of white academics and how they handle Africa American history-whatever they say they treat as truth, full of error and avoidable and what blacks say is ignored. La traits of Thomas Jefferson and Sally
    First, Archer Alexander was the son of an African slave and a member of the Alexander family, who was white in color and race. Not the child of two slaves as stated. For the record, borne in1816, he was a mulatto and raised by the Alexander family as a bonded servant and rented out by a church from age of 5 through 19. He traveled between the states of Virginia and Missouri at least two times, chaperoning white children to be educated. He was to be freed at the age of 21. However at the age of 20, he was tricked and sold for the first time as a slave to the cousins of John Alexander, American Revolutionary officer, He was sold a second time to a merchant in 1836 at St. Louis, Mo. and a third time in1844 to Richard Pitman, not to the name fictionaly listed in book as Holeman. He escaped as a runaway slave in February 1863 and 22 years later, a book about his escape and rescue was written by William Greeleaf Eliot. Why so many year later and who allegely wrote the book? Archer Alexander did not know of Eliot before his escape from Pitman as implied in the installation speech. The fact that Archer was a very religious man and stated as such by Eliot who was a minister. Archer’s decision to read better at the age of 54 as assisted by one of Eliot’s son- Christopher; whom Archer gave a pocket watch to him at his time of dying in 1879.
    Most of these facts and a host of others can be found in my book “The Rattling of the Chains” – an award book in two volumes , ISBN 978 -1-5035-2914-1&2 pub in 2015.

  2. Errol, Thanks for this addition. Fascinating and appreciate your engagement. Holden

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