Lincoln Museum Offers Unflinching Look at Racism, Civil War

Christi Parsons and Ray Long, Chicago Tribune, Apr. 20

SPRINGFIELD, Ill.—In a darkened gallery of this city’s new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, visitors walk a gantlet of ghostly, videographic faces, many spewing insults and hate-filled rhetoric like Lincoln may have heard as he pondered emancipation.

“Negro recruits,” says the hovering image of a Union officer, “will throw down their weapons and run like chickens at the first enemy volley.” Another angry officer says, if he had his way, he’d “shoot ever’ Negro I come across.”

One ominous Southern voice intones, “Slavery is the Negro’s natural and moral condition.”

Far from a gauzy tribute to the 16th president, the $90 million Lincoln museum—to be dedicated Tuesday with an appearance by President Bush—is a harsh tour through Civil War-era America, with racist insults and images, life-sized re-creations of brutalized slaves and even allusions to Lincoln’s own less-admired rhetoric on the issue of slavery.

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The museum features the “illusion gallery,” where a cacophony of voices complains about the “Negro war” and Lincoln’s plan to “steal” the property of Southern slave owners.

There is a photograph of a slave named Gordon with his back scarred from beatings, as well as posters seeking runaways and several racist political cartoons of the day, including one that depicts Lincoln being kissed on the lips by a black woman. All are reproductions of original pictures and publications in the state’s collection, stored in the new library across the street.

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The museum’s creators sidestepped some potential controversies.

While there is liberal use of the word “Negro” throughout the museum, creators decided not to use more inflammatory and commonplace language of the 19th Century out of concern it would detract from the overall message.

They also chose to re-create the scene of the Lincoln debate with Stephen A. Douglas at Knox College in Galesburg, ignoring other debates where Lincoln emphasized his opinion that whites should remain in a position “superior” to that of blacks. Lincoln told his audience at a debate in Charleston, for example, that he didn’t want to see blacks get the right to vote, serve on juries, marry whites or hold public office.

Likewise, there is no mention of Lincoln’s early interest in the idea of returning black people to Africa.

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