The Color Line: Is Virginia Ignoring Part of Its History?

Culture Watch

Mr. Loewen is the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me.

The following is an excerpt from Mr. Loewen's newest book, Lies Across America (Simon and Schuster), which has just been released in paperback.

On April 4, 1865, Abraham Lincoln with his young son Tad came up the James River to visit the former capital of the Confederacy. The idea was risky, for his army had entered Richmond only the previous morning, but Lincoln wanted the personal satisfaction of seeing the city that had eluded Union capture for so long. His trip is one of the great walks in American history, full of little incidents rich with larger meaning. Richmond needs to recognize it on its landscape.

Unfortunately, others apparently do not think so. I suggested to Teresa Roan, librarian at the Valentine Museum, the museum of Richmond history, that they might offer a tour of Lincoln's route. She hesitated."It's an exciting part of Richmond history," I pointed out."Yes," she replied,"but [pause].""But it's not a Confederate part?""I was trying to think how to put that," she agreed. A new marker at Rocketts Landing, treating Confederate naval installations on the James, includes a paragraph telling that Lincoln came ashore there. Otherwise Virginia, which marks every site where George Washington sneezed, has not one historical marker for Abraham Lincoln. The landscape cries out for markers to commemorate his landing, the site where he spoke to black workers, Castle Thunder (a Confederate prison), Lincoln's visit to the Confederate White House, and his speech at the capitol.

When Lincoln began his walk toward downtown word of his arrival spread like wildfire. Hundreds of African Americans rushed to the scene,"laughing, weeping, and shouting 'Glory, hallelujah!' and 'Thank you, Jesus!'" Many whites also cheered. Admiral David Porter, Lincoln's escort, wrote later,"The crowd poured in so fearfully that I thought we all stood a chance of being crushed to death."

The day was surely one of the more satisfying of his presidency, if not his whole life, which had only eleven days remaining. On April 15,"it is said that no Negro in Richmond spoke above a whisper," according to the WPA history, The Negro in Virginia."Remembering the tall gaunt man who had waved and smiled at them, men and women walked the streets, asking one another, 'Is it really true?'" John Wilkes Booth had acted however, and Abraham Lincoln would walk no more.

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