Special Report

Lincoln’s Contested Legacy

Great Emancipator or unreconstructed racist? Each generation evokes a different Lincoln. But who was our sixteenth president?

The Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C. (© Natural Selection Chris Pinchbeck / Design Pics / Corbis)
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Horrified by the reports of such ugly violence, a group of New York City activists formed the National Negro Committee, soon to be renamed the NAACP, with a young scholar named W.E.B. Du Bois to serve as director of publicity and research. From its beginning, the organization's mission was intertwined with Lincoln's, as one of its early statements made clear: "Abraham Lincoln began the emancipation of the Negro American. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People proposes to complete it."

The centennial of Lincoln's birth marked the largest commemoration of any person in American history. The Lincoln penny was minted, the first coin bearing the image of an American president, and talks took place in Washington about a grand Lincoln monument to be erected in the nation's capital. All across the country, and in many nations around the world, America's 16th president was extolled. An editorial in the London Times declared, "Together with Washington, Lincoln occupies a pinnacle to which no third person is likely to attain." The commander of the Brazilian Navy ordered a 21-gun salute "in homage to the memory of that noble martyr of moral and of neighborly love." The former states of the Confederacy, which less than 50 years earlier had rejoiced at Lincoln's death, now paid tribute to the leader who had reunified the nation. W. C. Calland, a state official in Missouri—which, during the Civil War, had been a border state that contributed 40,000 troops to the Confederate cause—barely contained his astonishment in a memorandum reporting on the festivities: "Perhaps no event could have gathered around it so much of patriotic sentiment in the South as the birthday of Abraham Lincoln....Confederate veterans held public services and gave public expression to the sentiment, that had ‘Lincoln lived' the days of reconstruction might have been softened and the era of good feeling ushered in earlier."

In most of America the celebrations were thoroughly segregated, including in Springfield, where blacks (with the exception of a declined invitation to Booker T. Washington) were excluded from a dazzling gala dinner. As the Chicago Tribune reported, it "is to be a lily white affair from start to finish." Across town, inside one of Springfield's most prominent black churches, African-Americans met for their own celebration. "We colored people love and revere the memory of Lincoln," said the Rev. L. H. Magee. "His name is a synonym for the freedom of wife, husband and children, and a chance to live in a free country, fearless of the slave-catcher and his bloodhounds." Referring to the "sacred dust of the great emancipator" lying in Springfield's Oak Ridge Cemetery, Magee called upon black people across America to make pilgrimages to Lincoln's tomb. And he cast his gaze forward a hundred years—to the bicentennial of 2009—and envisioned a Lincoln celebration "by the great-grandchildren of those who celebrate this centenary." In that far-off year, Magee predicted, "prejudice shall have been banished as a myth and relegated to the dark days of ‘Salem witchcraft.' "

A notable exception to the rule of segregated commemorations took place in Kentucky, where President Theodore Roosevelt, a longtime Lincoln admirer, presided over a dramatic ceremony at the old Lincoln homestead. Lincoln's birth cabin, of dubious provenance, had been purchased from promoters who had been displaying it around the country. Now the state, with Congressional support, planned to rebuild it on its original site, on a knoll above the Sinking Spring that had originally attracted Thomas Lincoln, the president's father, to the property. The 110-acre farmstead would become the "nation's commons," it was declared—a crossroads linking the entire country.

Seven thousand people showed up for the dedication, including a number of African-Americans, who mixed in among the others with no thought of separation. When Roosevelt began his speech he hopped onto a chair and was greeted by cheers. "As the years [roll] by," he said in his crisp, excitable voice, "...this whole Nation will grow to feel a peculiar sense of pride in the mightiest of the mighty men who mastered the mighty days; the lover of his country and of all mankind; the man whose blood was shed for the union of his people and for the freedom of a race: Abraham Lincoln." The ceremony in Kentucky heralded the possibility of national reconciliation and racial justice proceeding hand in hand. But that was not to be, as the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. 13 years later would make all too clear.

Members of the Lincoln Memorial commission—created by Congress in 1911—saw the monument not only as a tribute to the 16th president but also as a symbol of a reunified nation. With Northerners and Southerners having fought side by side in the Spanish-American War of 1898 and again in World War I, it was time, they felt, to put aside sectional differences once and for all. This meant that the Lincoln honored on the National Mall must not be the man who had broken the South militarily or had crushed the institution of slavery but the preserver of the Union. "By emphasizing his saving the Union you appeal to both sections," wrote Royal Cortissoz, author of the inscription that would be etched inside the finished building behind Daniel Chester French's nearly 20-foot-tall sculpture of the seated Lincoln. "By saying nothing about slavery you avoid the rubbing of old sores."

Two American presidents—Warren G. Harding and William Howard Taft—took part in the dedication ceremonies held on May 30, 1922, and loudspeakers on the memorial's rooftop carried the festivities across the Mall. Black guests were seated in a "colored section" off to the side. The commissioners had included a black speaker in the program; not wanting an activist who might challenge the mostly white audience, they had chosen Robert Russa Moton, the mild-mannered president of Tuskegee Institute, and required him to submit his text in advance for revision. But in what turned out to be the most powerful speech of the day, Moton highlighted Lincoln's emancipationist legacy and challenged Americans to live up to their calling to be a people of "equal justice and equal opportunity."

In the days that followed, Moton's speech went almost entirely unreported. Even his name was dropped from the record—in most accounts Moton was referred to simply as "a representative of the race." African-Americans across the country were outraged. The Chicago Defender, an African-American weekly, urged a boycott of the Lincoln Memorial until it was properly dedicated to the real Lincoln. Not long afterward, at a large gathering in front of the monument, Bishop E.D.W. Jones, an African-American religious leader, insisted that "the immortality of the great emancipator lay not in his preservation of the Union, but in his giving freedom to the negroes of America."


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