segregation at the lincoln memorial -- 2/29/16

Today's selection -- from Washington by Tom Lewis. At the dedication of Washington, D.C.'s spectacular Lincoln Memorial in 1922, the few African Americans who were invited were required to sit in a roped-off, segregated "colored" section:

"At last, all was ready for the dedication, which, appropriately enough, took place on Memorial Day 1922. Breaking his vow to steer clear of sitting presidents, Robert Todd Lincoln, the sixteenth presi­dent's oldest son, sat on the dais as an honored guest. Robert had come to think of himself as a bad omen for presidents, for a tragedy occurred whenever he was near them. He had been in Washington in 1865 when his father was shot, at the train station in 1881 when James Garfield was shot, and at Buffalo's Pan-American Exposition in 1901 when William McKinley was shot. Robert always cleared his travel plans with the White House so as never to be in the same city as the president. But the invitation to attend from Chief Justice William [and former president] Howard Taft, who had continued to chair the Lincoln Memorial Commission after his presi­dential defeat in 1912, had been too enticing.

"Robert Todd Lincoln listened as the poet Edwin Markham, famous for celebrating the cause of the laborer, read lines commemorat­ing his father's life. ... He listened as Taft called Lincoln 'the Nation's savior.' ... And he heard Warren G. Harding laud the sixteenth presi­dent's 'heroic patience' in reestablishing the 'union and security.'

Crowd attending the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial

"The day's lone black speaker, Robert Russa Moton, the Virginia-­born son of former slaves and the president of the Tuskegee Institute, delivered an opening address. ... Moton had been a late addition to the program, brought in only after the commissioners belatedly realized their failure to include a sin­gle black at the dedication. He was a safe choice, for he espoused Booker T. Washington's conservative vision of race relations: that through high morals and hard work, blacks would gradually bring down the barriers of segregation and earn their rightful place in American society. Never­theless, Taft and the Memorial Commission were clearly worried about what Moton might say. When they vetted his speech two weeks before the dedication, they had asked him to delete about a quarter of his remarks, including a passage in which Moton cited Lincoln's warning that 'this nation cannot endure half slave and half free: it will become all one thing or all the other.' Moton also agreed to remove, 'With equal truth, it can be said today: no more can the nation endure half privileged and half repressed; half educated and half uneducated; half protected and half unprotected; half prosperous and half in poverty; half in health and half in sickness; half content and half in discontent; yes, half free and half yet in bondage.'

"Partly in response to Moton, Harding said Lincoln 'would have compromised with the slavery that existed, if he could have halted its extension,' while Chief Justice Taft never uttered the words 'slavery' or 'emancipation.' Although he was far too accommodating to betray his feelings, Moton must have found it an especially discordant moment. He had just published The Negro of Today: Remarkable Growth of Fifty Years.

"The treatment of blacks on that dedication day laid bare a deep flaw in the nation's character that was apparent to all who cared to see and hear it in the District of Columbia. At the dedication they could see it in the roped-off, segregated 'colored' section, reserved for the few blacks who had been invited. They could hear it when a white-gloved Marine reportedly commanded 'Niggers over here' to those forced to sit behind the rope. No one had seemed to object when Colonel Clar­ence O. Sherrill, commissioner of public buildings and parks, and mil­itary aide to President Harding, had created the special enclosure for blacks. 'The venomous snake of segregation reared its head at the ded­ication,' wrote a reporter for the Chicago Defender, adding, 'what a change since Appomattox! The conquered have become victorious.' "


Tom Lewis


Washington: A History of Our National City


Basic Books


Copyright 2015 by Tom Lewis


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