Anna Maria Gillis: Lincoln’s Centennial





At eight o’clock in the morning on February 12, 1909, the forts around New York Harbor, the battleships in port, and the National Guard field batteries fired a salute in honor of Abraham Lincoln’s centenary. At noon the Gettysburg Address was read in New York City’s public schools. Booker T. Washington marked the day with a speech to the Republican Club at the Waldorf-Astoria. Boston’s celebrations included U.S. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge addressing a joint session of the Massachusetts House and Senate and Julia Ward Howe, author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” presenting the new poem “A Vision.”

The same day in tiny Hodgenville, Kentucky, visitors lined up to drink from a spring that flowed on the farm where Lincoln was born. Just a few years before, Robert J. Collier of Collier’s Weekly had purchased the farm for $3,600 and, with the help of the Lincoln Farm Association, was preserving Lincoln’s childhood home. The highlight of Hodgenville’s festivities: President Theodore Roosevelt slapping the first trowel of mortar on the cornerstone of the temple John Russell Pope would build to shelter the tiny log cabin. In his speech, Roosevelt compared Lincoln and George Washington, saying that each possessed “inflexible courage in adversity” and “the gentler virtues commonly exhibited by good men.” Of Lincoln’s virtues, the most important “was the extraordinary way in which Lincoln could fight valiantly against what he deemed wrong, and yet preserve undiminished his love and respect for the brother from whom he differed.”

Throughout the country’s towns and cities, there were parades, concerts, school programs, and much oratory. But none celebrated like Chicago, the city where Abraham Lincoln received the Republican nomination for president in 1860. Mayor Fred A. Busse’s proclamation exhorted the citizens of the Windy City to dedicate a whole week “to the study of the life and words of President Lincoln.”

Nathan W. MacChesney, secretary of the Lincoln Centennial Memorial Committee, reported in Abraham Lincoln: The Tribute of a Century that remembrances in Chicago began with prayers in the churches Sunday evening, February 7. Bronze tablets inscribed with the Gettysburg Address were placed on the walls of 267 public and 184 parochial schools for the edification of the city’s 400,000 school children. The mayor’s proclamation and Lincoln’s address were translated and published in the city’s foreign-language newspapers....

The speeches of the day did not mention that the town from which Lincoln rose to fame was only months removed from race riots that shocked the country. Those riots helped inspire what became the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded in Lincoln’s centenary year.
In August, a white crowd had gathered at the Springfield jail to demand that two African-American men be turned over. One man had been accused—it was later learned falsely—of assaulting a white woman, the other of murdering a white man. When the mob learned that the sheriff had moved the prisoners for their safety, “they destroyed a restaurant owned by a wealthy white citizen, Harry Loper, who had provided the automobile that the sheriff used to get the two men out of harm’s way,” according to Northern Illinois University’s online project, The Springfield Race Riot of 1908.

The crowd went on to set fire to the getaway car, destroy the black business district, lynch a black barber protecting his home, kill a wealthy black man who lived in a white neighborhood, and burn forty black families out of their homes. The state militia was called in to quell the rioting.

Southern-born social reformer William English Walling arrived from Chicago in the middle of the tensions. “We at once discovered that Springfield had no shame. She stood for the action of the mob,” he wrote in the September 3, 1908, edition of The Independent. “The spirit of the abolitionists, of Lincoln and of Lovejoy must be revived and we must come to treat the negro on a plane of absolute political and social equality.”...


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