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Booker T. Washington Visits the Lincoln Home

7/30/2020 Christian McWhirter

The Lincoln Family purchased their Springfield home, at Eighth and Jackson, in May 1844. It was the only home Abraham Lincoln ever owned and he likely had little idea it would eventually become a site of deep national reverence.

 Abraham, Willie, and Tad Lincoln in front of the Lincoln Home (Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum)

Following Lincoln's April 1865 assassination, ownership of the home passed to his oldest son, Robert Todd Lincoln. Robert continued to rent out the house, as the Lincolns had done during their time in Washington. Over the years, visitors increasingly began requesting tours and the home gradually transformed from a regular dwelling into the memorial site we know today.

In 1887, Robert deeded the house to the State of Illinois for just $1, cementing its status as a preserved, historic site. It remained in the state's possession until 1972, when the federal government assumed control and made it a National Park.

The power of the Lincoln Home is evident in this register of visitors from 1892 to 1951. Among the signatures in the book are those of President Calvin Coolidge, famed bandleader John Philip Sousa, and Hollywood actor Shirley Temple.

This page records an August 7, 1903, visit from civil rights leader Booker T. Washington. He had given a speech in Petersburg, Illinois, earlier that day and came to Springfield to pay his respects to Lincoln. That afternoon, Washington toured both the Lincoln Home and the Lincoln Tomb. We don't know much about his experience, other than that the Lincoln Home gave him a gift to commemorate the experience.

 Register page from the Lincoln Home recording Booker T. Washington's visit (ALPLM)

Six years later, the nation commemorated the 100th anniversary of Lincoln's birth. A cloud hung over the festivities, however, as Lincoln's hometown had been the site of a brutal race riot less than a year earlier. Washington balanced his reverence for Lincoln and his concern for the current state of American race relations when he spoke to the Republican Club of New York City on Lincoln's birthday.

He began by recalling the first time he remembered hearing Lincoln's name:

"I was awakened early one morning before the dawn of day, as I lay wrapped in a bundle of rags on the dirt floor of a slave cabin, by the prayers of my mother, just before leaving for her day's work, as she was kneeling over my body earnestly praying that Abraham Lincoln might succeed, and that one day she and her boy might be free."

 Booker T. Washington (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Then Washington reflected on Lincoln's global impact, noting:

"By the same act that freed my race, he said to the civilized and uncivilized world that man everywhere must be free, and that man everywhere must be enlightened, and the Lincoln spirit of freedom and fair play will never cease to spread and grow in power till throughout the world all men shall know the truth, and the truth shall make them free."

It's hard not to wonder if Washington had pondered similar ideas as he made his way through the home and felt the weight of Lincoln's legacy.

The Lincoln Home register is currently on display in the Legacy cases at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

Christian McWhirter
Lincoln Historian

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