During summer of 2018, I worked at the National History Academy as a teaching assistant and counselor. Alongside my students, I studied American history, explored many museums, and debated the impacts of our country’s nuanced historical legacy. Below is a revised version of a post I wrote about our adventures following Lincoln’s past in D.C.
Today at the National History Academy, our students returned to Washington, D.C. to learn about Abraham Lincoln’s life and his legacy in the Civil Rights Movement. Our students studied Lincoln’s place in history and grappled with the same political questions that challenged Lincoln during his presidency.
Our first stop, Ford’s Theater and the Petersen House, allowed our students to learn about the political situation throughout the Civil War that led to Lincoln’s assassination. Students visited a small museum underneath the theater to provide historical context about the Civil War, Lincoln’s life, and the events leading to his eventual assassination. Students then sat in the house of Ford’s Theater and listened to a National Parks ranger explain an engaging account of the assassination and following manhunt for John Wilkes Booth.
Though Ford’s Theater primarily focused on Booth’s influence, our students also visited the Petersen House across the street to see where Lincoln passed away. The home highlighted Lincoln’s lasting political influence, including an exhibit exploring how Lincoln fits into American historical memory. The students viewed a three-story tower of allegedly every book ever written about Lincoln, which was a highlight for many students and a popular spot for photos. Seeing this tower in person further emphasized to the students of Lincoln’s lasting impact in the 21st century.
Following our stop downtown, the students traveled to Northwest Washington to visit President Lincoln’s Cottage. The house served as Lincoln’s summer home during his presidency and recently opened to the public in 2008. Atypical of most historic house museums, our students explored a home with extremely limited furniture and art. Instead, museum educators at Lincoln’s Cottage used the blank spaces to focus on interpreting the political challenges Lincoln faced. In each room, our tour guides discussed many political disputes of Lincoln’s presidency and required our students to discuss how they might handle similar issues.
At Lincoln’s Cottage, our students also were also taught a case study from Matthew Pinsker. A Lincoln scholar at Dickinson College, Pinsker spoke with our students about his work rediscovering Lincoln’s legacy at the Cottage. The site served as Lincoln’s summer getaway where he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation and other important documents, and the case study forced students to use these documents to determine political solutions to the questions they were first posed during the house tour. Our students were also able to speak with Pinsker about both his career studying Lincoln and his digital humanities experience, where he has applied augmented reality to historical interpretation.
Culminating our exploration of Lincoln’s long-lasting legacy, we concluded the day discussing the Civil Rights Movement. Our students returned to the National Mall to visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. The students could walk up to the large MLK statue overlooking the Tidal Basin and read engraved quotes from his writings and speeches. The visit to the memorial was moving for many students, and fully tied together the beginning of African American equality that Lincoln helped initiate.
If you’re interested in reading more about how Lincoln historical sites continue to share Lincoln’s legacy today, I highly recommend checking out Andrew Ferguson’s Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America. While it’s slightly dated and is often more of a travelogue than interpretative text, it still provides hilarious insights into the wild world of Abraham Lincoln-related books, museums, and statues.