A Century Ago, the Lincoln Memorial’s Dedication Underscored the Nation’s Racial Divide

Seating was segregated, and the ceremony’s only Black speaker was forced to drastically revise his speech to avoid spreading “propaganda”

View of the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial dedication
According to author Christopher A. Thomas, the dedication "was a microcosm of the strained race relations of its day, marked by the rhetoric of good intentions and the behavior of bigotry." Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

On May 30, 1922, an estimated 50,000 people gathered on the banks of the Potomac River for the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial, a towering tribute to Abraham Lincoln. Decades in the making, the memorial’s classically inspired design alluded to two hallmarks of Lincoln’s presidency: the emancipation of the enslaved and his continued calls for unity in a time of unprecedented division.

Robert Todd Lincoln, the president’s only surviving son, attended the Memorial Day ceremony, which featured speeches by three prominent men: Chief Justice (and former president) William Howard Taft; President Warren G. Harding; and Robert Russa Moton, principal of the Tuskegee Institute, a historically Black school in Alabama.

“The American people have waited 57 years for a national memorial to Abraham Lincoln,” said Taft, head of the Lincoln Memorial Commission, in his opening comments. “Those years have faded the figures of his contemporaries, and he stands grandly alone. His life and character in the calmer and juster vista of half a century inspire a higher conception of what is suitable to commemorate him.”

L to R: William Howard Taft, Warren G. Harding and Robert Todd Lincoln at the dedication ceremony
L to R: William Howard Taft, Warren G. Harding and Robert Todd Lincoln at the dedication ceremony Public domain via Library of Congress

The long-delayed memorial honored a man nicknamed the “Great Emancipator” for his efforts to expand rights for African Americans—but as the ceremony underscored, the United States’ racial divide remained a pressing problem. At the ceremony, a white marine forced Black attendees into a segregated seating area. (A number of Black Civil War veterans participated in a ceremonial exercise and sat alongside their white peers in a reserved section of the audience, but they were the exception to the rule.) Ahead of the dedication, Taft also asked Moton, the only Black speaker at the event, to drastically rewrite his speech to avoid spreading “propaganda” about the work still needed to achieve Lincoln’s vision of equality.

“[The dedication] was a microcosm of the strained race relations of its day, marked by the rhetoric of good intentions and the behavior of bigotry,” writes Christopher A. Thomas in The Lincoln Memorial and American Life.

Brian Anderson, co-author of Images of America: The Lincoln Memorial and a longtime trustee of the Ford’s Theatre Society, says, “What would most surprise the 2022 observer about the Lincoln Memorial and its dedication ceremony is the deliberate choice of the memorial’s designers and the ceremony’s organizers to minimize references to Abraham Lincoln’s opposition to slavery and to the actions he took during his presidency to increase civil rights for Black Americans.”

Unveiled to the public just over 57 years after John Wilkes Booth assassinated Lincoln on April 14, 1865, the Lincoln Memorial followed a protracted path from inception to dedication. Within two years of Lincoln’s death, the government formed a commission tasked with creating a memorial to the fallen president. But the project wasn’t a priority during Reconstruction, when officials were more focused on rebuilding the country after the devastation of the Civil War, says Kevin S. Schindler, co-author of Images of America: The Lincoln Memorial and a historian at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Attendees at the Lincoln Memorial's 1922 dedication ceremony
Attendees at the Lincoln Memorial's 1922 dedication ceremony Bettmann / Getty Images

Momentum for the memorial shifted depending on which political party was in power. When Republicans were in charge, politicians were eager to celebrate Lincoln as an emancipator, Schindler says. Democrats, however, generally opposed Lincoln and saw no reason to honor him with an expensive monument. (In the mid- to late 19th century, the parties’ platforms were essentially switched from their modern-day stances, with Northern Republicans like Lincoln supporting the expansion of federal government and Southern Democrats seeking to curb federal power.) As beloved as Lincoln was by many, he was equally loathed by others.

“Lincoln was the leader of [the] party [the Democrats] were against,” Schindler says. “Democrats certainly didn’t want to celebrate that right after the war.”

President Warren G. Harding at the dedication ceremony
President Warren G. Harding at the dedication ceremony Bettmann / Getty Images

At the turn of the 20th century, when Republican William McKinley was in office, building the Lincoln Memorial became a priority again. In 1911, after several years of debate over the memorial’s proposed location, Congress allocated $2 million (around $60 million today) toward construction; costs later ballooned to $3 million (around $91 million today), making the structure the most expensive American monument built to date. Work began on February 12, 1914—Lincoln’s 105th birthday—with Joseph Blackburn, a member of the Lincoln Memorial Commission and a former Confederate army officer, breaking ground on the site.

“This memorial will show that Lincoln is now regarded as the greatest of all Americans,” said Blackburn during the ceremony, “and that he is so held by the South as well as the North.”

Ideas for what a memorial honoring Lincoln would look like varied. Some suggested building a national road from Washington, D.C. to Gettysburg and placing statues celebrating Lincoln and emancipation along its route, Schindler says. Rejected designs ranged from an Egyptian pyramid to a Maya temple.

The commission ultimately chose architect Henry Bacon’s design, which was modeled after the Parthenon in Athens, Greece. Sculptor Daniel Chester French created the Lincoln statue that sits in the central chamber of the memorial, while his only woman assistant, Evelyn Beatrice Longman, came up with the lettering of and ornamentation surrounding two speeches inscribed in a pair of flanking chambers: the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. Murals painted by Jules Guérin capped off the ambitious endeavor, appearing above the speeches as tributes to Lincoln’s legacy of reunification and emancipation.

The dedication ceremony mainly emphasized the first of these achievements, with speakers stressing the importance of unity in creating a strong nation. Racial equality, and the marginal progress made in that area since Lincoln’s death, were of secondary concern.

In 1922, D.C—then home to more African Americans than any other city in the country—boasted a prosperous Black community, with many people migrating to the area to pursue federal jobs and educational opportunities. But segregation and racism remained rampant in the capital, which was still dealing with the aftershocks of a 1919 race massacre in which white mobs attacked Black residents, particularly soldiers returning from service in World War I. Part of a broader wave of unrest now known as the Red Summer, the violence stemmed from Black Americans’ refusal to accept the pre-war status quo—a trend that laid the groundwork for the burgeoning civil rights movement.

Crowd at the Lincoln Memorial dedication ceremony
An estimated 50,000 people attended the dedication ceremony. Photo by National Archives / Newsmakers

At the ceremony, Black attendees found themselves split from the mostly white audience, “abrasively directed” by a white marine to a segregated area behind a rope, according to Thomas’ The Lincoln Memorial and American Life. Though this segregated seating was the norm in 1920s D.C., 21 Black guests left the event in protest; the marine, for his part, reportedly responded to criticism of his behavior by invoking a racial slur and arguing that this was “the only way you can handle these damned [people].”

Compounding the disrespect was the fact that Moton, the dedication’s keynote speaker, was discouraged from delivering his planned speech. In a May 23 telegram to the Tuskegee Institute head, Taft wrote, “Shall have to ask you to cut five hundred words, and suggest that in making the cut you give more unity and symmetry by emphasizing tribute and lessening appeal. I am sure you wish to avoid any insinuation of attempt to make the occasion one for propaganda.” In response, Moton removed several sections, including one declaring “the task for which the immortal Lincoln gave the last full measure of devotion”—namely, racial equality—“still unfinished.”

As Thomas writes, the memorial commission “handpicked” Moton because he was a Republican “accommodationist, not a militant spokesman for [B]lack interests.” But members still deemed his initial comments too inflammatory, and during the ceremony, they took pains to contradict even his muted assertions of continuing inequality. Painting Lincoln’s emancipation of the enslaved as the means to an end, Taft and Harding used their speeches to argue that his “greatness lay in saving the nation.”

Robert Russa Moton (standing at far left) speaking at the dedication ceremony
Robert Russa Moton (standing at far left) speaking at the dedication ceremony Public domain via Library of Congress

“The most prominent speakers’ dedication remarks characterized Lincoln’s presidency as the beginning of a half century-long process of national reunification that, by 1922, had made the United States a rich and powerful nation,” says Anderson.

Mainstream newspaper coverage of the dedication largely overlooked—or misinterpreted—Moton’s speech. The Washington Post, for instance, failed to even name him, instead simply writing, “A representative of the race for which the Great Emancipator did so much likewise lifted his voice in gratitude for the freedom of so many in American from serfdom.” Meanwhile, an editor at the Chicago Defender, a prominent Black newspaper, argued that Moton’s appeal had fallen “on ears closed and deaf to reason.” He then proceeded to call for a boycott of the memorial until “juster and more grateful men come to power and history shall have rebuked offenders against the name of Abraham Lincoln.”

Last Sunday, several of Moton’s descendants gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to participate in a centennial event hosted by the Lincoln Group of D.C. Reflecting on her great-grandfather’s speech, Consuela Austin told the Washington Post, “What you want to say and what you are allowed to say are different.” Featured speaker Edna Greene Medford, a historian at Howard University, echoed Austin’s sentiment, emphasizing the “privilege and burden” experienced by Moton.

In the decades since Moton’s address, the meaning of the monument has evolved, becoming “strongly associated with efforts to advance civil rights for all Americans,” according to Anderson. Singer Marian Anderson staged a concert on the steps of the memorial in 1939, after the historically all-white Daughters of the Revolution refused to allow her to perform at Constitution Hall. In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech to a crowd of some 250,000 gathered at the D.C. landmark. Like Moton had 41 years prior, King called attention to Lincoln’s vision of equality—and the work still needed to bring it to fruition.

The Lincoln Memorial, illuminated by searchlights on the night of May 31, 1922
The Lincoln Memorial, illuminated by searchlights on the night of May 31, 1922 Bettmann / Getty Images

“To me, to the average person, they probably think of [the memorial] more with emancipation than unification,” Schindler says. “At the time [of its dedication], the focus was definitely unification.”

This year, Anderson predicts that “the various commemorations of the centennial of the Lincoln Memorial ... will feature Lincoln’s views and policies toward slavery more prominently than did the events of 100 years ago.” He adds, “Notwithstanding its sponsors’ intentions, advocates for an array of political causes, including racial civil rights, have over the years incorporated the Lincoln Memorial (and President Lincoln’s moral authority) into their marches, rallies and celebrations.”

Editor's Note, September 12, 2023: This article has been updated to mention an integrated group of Civil War veterans in attendance at the dedication.

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