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The Embrace and the 1965 Freedom Plaza by Hank Willis Thomas and MASS Design Group

This community-driven project was unveiled on the Boston Common in January 2023.

Photo courtesy of Skanska

Project Context

History and Process

Entrepreneur Paul English co-chaired the project with Rev. Liz Walker and Rev. Jeffrey Brown. English made a financial commitment to a memorial in 2017. The Boston Foundation supported and housed this financial commitment. The City of Boston and Embrace Boston then convened an Art Committee. The committee began the artist selection and design process for the memorial. Barry Gaither and Karin Goodfellow co-chaired the committee. It included these local cultural leaders:

  • L’Merchie Frazier, artist; former Education Director of Museum of African American History, current Executive Director of Creative Strategies and Partnerships at SPOKE;

  • Ekua Holmes, artist, vice-chair of the Boston Art Commission, and Associate Director of the Center for Art and Community Partnerships at Massachusetts College of Art and Design;

  • Cher Krause Knight, Public Art Scholar, Art History Professor, Emerson College;

  • Danielle Legros Georges, formerly the Boston Poet Laureate, Professor, Lesley University; and

  • Brandon Terry, Dr. Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Scholar, Professor, Harvard University.

The co-chairs and committee coordinated many meetings across Boston. The goal was to get input on how to celebrate and advance the Kings’ work in Boston. This led to the expansion of the project to several components.

The City released a Call to Artists in 2017. The call received responses from 126 artist teams around the world. The Art Committee selected five finalist teams. Their concepts were shared online and in exhibits at the Bolling Building and the Central Branch of the Boston Public Library. Approximately 1,000 public comments were submitted. Three teams were then invited to move on to the feasibility stage. During this stage, a team reviewed the practicality of each design.

In March 2019, the Boston Art Commission approved the recommendation of The Embrace by artist Hank Willis Thomas and MASS Design Group as the design for the memorial. A lengthy public process followed including:

  • two Art Commission advisory reviews,

  • a preliminary design review,

  • and other public meetings and presentations of the artwork design.

The Boston Art Commission unanimously voted to approve the final design of The Embrace in the spring of 2021. The BAC also voted to exempt the artwork from the moratorium on public art on the Boston Common. Because Boston Common is a Boston landmark, the site also needed approval by the Boston Landmarks Commission and review by City archaeologist Joe Bagley. The memorial was unveiled on the Boston Common in January 2023.

Final design of 'The Embrace'.

Artwork Details

About the Artwork

The Embrace is an important cultural symbol of equity and justice for Boston residents and all those who visit the city and region. The artwork is a long-term memorial representing the Kings’ time and powerful presence in Boston, a time that helped shape their approach to an equitable society. More than five years in the making, The Embrace is a physical reflection of Boston’s diversity.

The bronze sculpture is:

  • nearly 38,000-pounds,

  • 20-feet-high,

  • 25-feet-wide,

  • and is made up of approximately 609 individual pieces.

It was built at the Walla Walla Foundry in Washington state. The memorial is designed and landscaped with sensitivity to how it fits within the context of the Boston Common. The memorial is sited to preserve robust existing trees and scaled to be below their canopy, with additional trees added to the plaza. It is the first new public artwork in Boston Common in more than 30 years.

About the 1965 Freedom Plaza

The sculpture is grounded in a 6,000 square-foot circular plaza. This plaza features granite custom-shaped pavers, benches, and wall elements fabricated by Quarra Stone Company. Made up of over 1,300 granite stone pieces in six different finishes, the diamond-shaped pavers evoke African-American quilt making traditions. The pattern symbolizes unity and collectivism, echoing a famous quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. from his letter from Birmingham Jail in Birmingham, AL, in 1963:

“All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

The 1965 Freedom Plaza that supports The Embrace honors 69 local civil rights leaders active between 1950-1970. These leaders reflect the broad range of cultural and lived experiences of the people that make up Greater Boston. The plaza highlights the stories of the Boston people who marched with King during the 1965 Freedom Rally, which ended at the Boston Common. The honorees are commemorated with a bronze plaque embedded within the plaza. The Embrace uses the font “Martin,” designed by Black creator Tré Seals, named after Dr. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

The plaza is framed by two circular bench walls that rise from the granite. The benches nestle the space to foster intimacy. One wall features a quote from Coretta Scott King that builds on the memorial’s focus on love as key to making the change we want to see. This public archive uplifts hidden and under-told stories of Boston’s rich history and provides community members with deeper insight into Boston’s Black and Brown history.

Photo courtesy of Skanska.

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