I have worked in museums for close to twenty years and have visited them all over the world for longer than that. I have personally handled ancient pottery, figurines, weapons, furniture, and art objects—everything from Egyptian funerary relics to Civil War uniforms. While I won’t deny that I consider being able to have a hands-on relationship with these objects an extraordinary benefit of my career, I have to say that I am rarely “touched back” by them. However, when our registrars called me to let me know they were unpacking Abraham Lincoln’s valise for our “Lincoln Spotlight” exhibit, I knew this time was going to be different.
A task of our Museum registrars is the inspection and assessment of each object as it comes into our care (and as it leaves as well). Then we have to figure out the best way to display the object while protecting it from any further damage. On the surface there was nothing spectacular about Lincoln’s valise—it’s made of old leather that is quite worn and somewhat brittle and it lacks any decorative quality; it’s a utilitarian object meant to carry papers and books. Even having Lincoln’s name stamped on the front is not that interesting in and of itself. However, knowing that it most likely once carried the Emancipation Proclamation made it worth having here as part of the exhibit. At least that’s what I was thinking as I rode the elevator down to our Collections area to take a look.
What I wasn’t prepared for was how deeply moved I was as I watched the portfolio be unwrapped. In that instant, Abraham Lincoln became a real human being to me, rather than a “living myth.”
The Man Behind the Myth
My earliest recollection of the personage of Lincoln was the penny in my loafers—that face on the coin that fit into my shoe. Of course, my impression of him changed somewhat once school started and I learned that he had been my president.
Not long afterwards, my hometown of Safety Harbor, Florida, held a beard-growing contest.
My father took part, and I was immediately convinced that we were related to President Lincoln. I mean we just had to be—the resemblance was too uncanny. I began to read all I could about Lincoln, but he was still just a character, someone who taught himself to read by candlelight, lived in a log cabin (Lincoln Logs were a favorite toy of course), freed the slaves, and had a really big statue of himself in Washington D.C.
Through school I learned more about Lincoln, memorized the Gettysburg Address (without truly grasping its significance—that came much later with Garry Wills’ excellent book Lincoln at Gettysburg: Words that Remade America) and discovered what was behind part of our town being called Lincoln Heights.
Doing Good Things
While I was too young to truly experience the Civil Rights Movement as it happened (I was five years old in 1964), I came of age as the effects of the movement did. Two of the three most pivotal events of my childhood were the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. I still can remember the adults in our living room crying as they watched the funeral processions on the television. Their only explanation to a wondering child was that some really bad people had killed some other people who were trying to do good things. The third truly pivotal event of my childhood was when my elementary school desegregated, which didn’t happen until I was in the fifth grade, in 1969–1970—a full fourteen years after the first Brown vs. Board of Education decision. The Pinellas County School Board, where I attended school, didn’t adopt a countywide desegregation program until June 2, 1971, following several U.S. Supreme Court decisions (the first Florida county to do so).
Until the fifth grade, race had not been something I thought about. Then it suddenly became central in ways that were next to impossible for me to understand. When my neighbor’s son who was an avid basketball player invited some African American friends over to play at his house, his family had a cross burned in their front yard. The Civil War had come to my neighborhood after lying somewhat dormant for a very long time.
As children often do, we didn’t let these things determine how we played and learned at school, even though at times things got tense—often due to adult issues and instigation. As I grew older with my new friends, I came to understand the poster I had once seen in the home of a African American family when accompanying my father on his fuel oil delivery route. The poster had the profiles of three men: John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Abraham Lincoln. The first two had died attempting to complete what the third had started with a proclamation of freedom. A proclamation carried in a simple leather portfolio stamped ABRAHAM LINCOLN. A portfolio that belonged to someone who had done good things. Happy birth week, President Lincoln.