The Journey begins...

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The National Park Service is sponsoring programming that will commemorate the 150 anniversary of President-elect Abraham Lincoln's trip from Springfield, Illinois to Washington, DC, on February 11-23, 2011.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Lincoln meets little Grace Bedell

This morning we went to Garfield Heights Middle School in Garfield Heights, Ohio (a suburb of Cleveland) for a program. Vicki Tomasheski is a teacher there. She is a participant in the teacher-ranger-teacher program with Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Karen Kopchak recommended her.

Statue of Lincoln and Grace Bedell, Westfield, NY
The 57 middle school students and teachers really enjoyed the program. Fritz does a different presentation for students. His Lincoln for kids is folksier and he tells stories of Lincoln’s childhood. Some of the phrases get a laugh, too, such as, “I was happy as a pig in a pea patch.” Fritz also includes messages that emphasize that anybody can grow up to be successful like Lincoln, if you work hard, do your best, stay honest, and never give up. In addition, Fritz has a great knack for getting across the unpleasant topic of slavery in a way that students understand and can relate to.

After the program, the students swarmed around Fritz. He shook hands and spoke to them in small groups. On the way to the van, I snapped some photos of Mr. Lincoln doffing is top hat in front of the “Garfield Heights” school sign. We then proceeded on to one of our most anticipated stops: Westfield, New York. Westfield was a very special stop for Mr. Lincoln. Grace Bedell, a young girl, had written a letter to Mr. Lincoln suggesting that he grow a beard.

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Some three months ago, I received a letter from a young lady here; it was a very pretty letter, and she advised me to let my whiskers grow, as it would improve my personal appearance; acting partly upon her suggestion, I have done so; and now, if she is here, I would like to see her; . . . a small boy, mounted on a post, with his mouth and eyes wide open, cried out, “there she is, Mr. LINCOLN,” pointing to a beautiful girl, with black eyes, who was blushing all over her fair face. The President left the car, and the crowd making way for him, he reached for her, and gave her several hearty kisses, and amid the yells of delight from the excited crowd, he bade her good-bye.

Our program was set up in the auditorium for approximately 600 people. The audience included the student body—from elementary to high school—of the Westfield Academy and Central School as well as a fair number of townspeople. About a dozen people were attired in 1860s era reproduction clothing. They sat on stage behind Mr. Lincoln. One gentleman was portraying railroad detective Allan Pinkerton. Mr. Pinkerton stood behind the president-elect and relentlessly scanned the student body in case one of the kids decided to rush the stage and inflict bodily harm to Mr. Lincoln. The student band, which numbered about 15 or so, serenaded the audience with Civil War era songs. It was a nice touch. The upright bass player even sported an Abe Lincoln beard and stovepipe top hat. “Madison,” a young girl from Westfield, portrayed Grace Bedell. We staged several photographic sessions of her presenting yellow roses to Mr. Lincoln. She was a good sport about the whole thing.

During the set-up for the Westfield school program, I was asked by Martha Bills, our primary point of contact for our stop there, to get in touch with a Buffalo television station. I called the WGRZ studio. They couldn’t send a crew down to the event to film it. Could we send some still photographs? Sure, I said. So after the program, a secretary in the school superintendent’s office let me use her computer. I downloaded four photos that I took at the school event and emailed them. The images subsequently appeared on the six o’clock news. I also asked that they plug our public program in Buffalo the next night. Once we had squared away getting the photos to the Buffalo TV station, Tim steered our van to a reception. We stepped carefully over ice and snow and walked into to a wonderful historic home, which houses the Chautauqua County Historical Society. Everyone was so friendly.

On the second floor, we were shown through an exhibit room that featured several Lincoln images and artifacts, including two lanterns that had been on the carriage that delivered President and Mrs. Lincoln to Ford’s Theatre on the tragic night of the assassination, and a Lincoln Funeral Train adornment. Lincoln’s funeral train traveled through Westfield four years after the inaugural train. At 1:00 am on April 28, 1865, the funeral train stopped briefly in Westfield “where large bonfires had been built, lights hung about, and a signal gun was fired.” Several women from Westfield were permitted on the train and they placed a wreath on the president’s casket.

Through conversations with several people and exhibits at the museum, we learned about an all but forgotten advocate for civil rights. Albion Winegar Tourgee served as an officer in the Union army. He devoted his career to making equal rights a reality for everyone. Mr. Tourgee wrote, “Justice is pictured blind and her daughter, the Law, ought at least to be color-blind.” Tourgee even argued for the plaintiff in the landmark case Plessy v. Ferguson before the U.S. Supreme Court. He lost. The court decided that in a case involving segregated railroad cars in Louisiana that “separate but equal” facilities for people of color was constitutional.

At my park we interpret Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court case that overturned Plessy v. Ferguson. At Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, we provide visitors with opportunities to learn how the 1954 decision became a turning point in the nation’s long struggle to provide freedom and equality for everyone.

Both Plessy and Brown impacted American history in many ways. Plessy led to the nadir of race relations in American history as states were allowed to create racially segregated public institutions—including public schools. Brown, conversely, opened the door to the modern civil rights movement; it inaugurated an opening into the light of equality and justice after a long, dark night of oppression and injustice.

Tourgee’s efforts and the history of Plessy and Brown relates to the “Civil War to Civil Rights” sub-theme that the National Park Service is interpreting during the Civil War Sesquicentennial from 2011 to 2015. The freedom that African Americans achieved as a result of the Civil War did not become equality. Equality would have to wait another 100 years.

By the way, we also learned that Robert H. Jackson grew up in Frewsburg, NY, about 30 miles from Westfield. Jackson was one of the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices who voted unanimously in the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Jackson also served as a prosecutor in the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials of former Nazi officials in post-World War II Germany.

As Lincoln’s train pulled into Westfield 150 years ago, a banner proclaimed prominently, “Welcome Abraham Lincoln to the Empire State.” We were also welcomed to the Empire State.
The people at Westfield were very hospitable. We had a delightful time.

Before leaving Westfield, a group of us walked over to the sight of the statues of Abraham Lincoln and Grace Bedell. These statues are two of the primary tangible reminders of Lincoln’s inaugural journey. They’re wonderful depictions of two Americans whose lives intersected briefly, but meaningfully. We took quite a number of photographs.

I hate to leave out anyone, because I know many people made the Westfield event a memorable one. But I do wish to thank Marth Bills; John Paul Wolfe, the curator at the Chautauqua County Historical Society; and David and Sandra Brown for dressing in period clothes and being such wonderful hosts for us.

Then we proceeded on to Buffalo, NY, where we spent the night.

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