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 Chicago Tribune took on the task of teaching Lincoln. Its blockbuster February 7 edition “ran to 194 pages and weighed three and one-quarter pounds. A year in the planning, over five weeks in printing on thirteen presses using five tons of ink, the sheets of the edition laid end to end would stretch eleven thousand miles, or all the way to Singapore,” says Merrill Peterson in Lincoln in American Memory.
Booker T. Washington was among the many who paid homage to Lincoln in that edition. He recalled that the first name he learned outside the plantation where he was born was Lincoln’s. He often woke to his mother’s prayer that “‘Marse Lincoln’ might succeed and that some day I might be free.” Washington tells a story of Lincoln’s entrance into defeated Richmond in April 1865. An old woman carrying a sick child says, “See yeah, honey, look at de Saviour, an’ you will git well. Touch de hem of his garment, honey, an’ yur pain will be done gone.” In his tribute to Lincoln, Washington reminded readers that the “South had no more loyal friend.”
The culmination on February 12 was five events that drew thousands to the city’s auditorium and armories. The speeches there and all over the country were a time to retell America’s most important story and heap laurels on its hero. People spoke of Lincoln’s simplicity and rugged honesty, of how he saved democracy and was the “right arm of the common people,” and of how “he was destined by God to perform a divine action.”
Woodrow Wilson, who gave the leading speech at Chicago’s auditorium, said, “My earliest recollection is standing at my father’s gateway in Augusta, Georgia, when I was four years old, and hearing, some one pass and say that Mr. Lincoln was elected and there was to be war.” After extolling Lincoln’s virtues, he asked, “Can we have other Lincolns? We cannot do without them. This country is going to have crisis after crisis.” At the end of the program, when veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic marched out, dipping their colors as they passed General Grant, the son of their old commander, “there was scarcely a dry eye in the house,” says MacChesney.
Rabbi Emil Hirsch, who spoke at the Second Regiment Armory, said the anniversary challenges whether “we have proven worthy heirs of the fathers.” He asked, “How do we measure up against him?”
Thousands of black citizens, including the men of the Eighth Infantry and the Colored Citizens’ Committee, gathered at the Seventh Regiment Armory, to honor Lincoln the Emancipator. In his address, the Reverend A. J. Carey told them, “If the spirit world has interest in this material world, how depressed must be the spirit of Lincoln at the backward swinging of the pendulum.”
In Springfield, both the French and English ambassadors were in attendance, and William J. Bryan spoke. The Daughters of the American Revolution hosted festivities, and a spectacular dinner at the State Arsenal was supported by donations from the Abraham Lincoln Association. MacChesney reports that “the negroes of the city held a separate meeting of their own in honor of the day.”
The Reverend L. H. Magee, speaking at the gathering in Springfield’s A.M.E. Church looked forward one hundred years: “We behold another Lincoln celebration by the great-grandchildren of those who celebrate this centenary. America shall have grown to be the center of civilization, mental and moral culture. Prejudice shall have been banished as a myth and relegated to the dark days of ‘Salem witchcraft.’ The gospel of ‘malice toward none and charity for all’ shall have regenerated and changed the mental attitude of all towards the poor and despised on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude. The colored people shall have risen above their present level by means of education, wealth and power as a factor in our government.”
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.”
Fellow reformers Mary Ovington and Henry Moskowitz met with Walling in January 1909 and decided that Lincoln’s one-hundredth birthday was the day to announce the need for a conference to discuss racial inequality. Oswald Garrison Villard, president of the New York Post Company, wrote the call to action: “If Mr. Lincoln could revisit this country in the flesh, he would be disheartened and discouraged.” He said the president would learn that Georgia had just disenfranchised African Americans, the Supreme Court had deemed it acceptable for a state to “make it a crime for white and colored persons to frequent the same market place at the same time,” and state after state “declines to do its elementary duty in preparing the Negro through education for the best exercise of citizenship.”
The signatories to Villard’s call included W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida Wells Barnett, John Dewey, Jane Addams, Lincoln Steffens, William Dean Howells, and Rabbi Emil Hirsch. It led to the first national meeting of the NAACP, which took place May 31 and June 1 of the centenary year.