Ford’s Theatre recently hosted a standing-room-only conversation with Peabody Award-winning journalist Michele Norris and noted historian Kate Masur on the book “They Knew Lincoln,” written by a Black Washingtonian, John E. Washington, first published in 1942.
The book chronicles the lives of Blacks who lived in the District and who had personal encounters with President Abraham Lincoln. Masur, a research professor at Northwestern University and an historian of the Civil War and Reconstruction, has written a new introduction that details Washington’s own life and includes her assessment on why the book, its first reprinting since its initial release, remains historically significant to 21st-century citizens.
We asked Masur to talk about her research, the book and to share what she learned along the way:
Washington Informer: This book, reprinted for the first time since its original publication date in 1942, has been referred to as a classic in African-American history and Lincoln studies. Still, it’s a book that remains fairly unknown. Why do so few people, Black or white, know very much about how Black people viewed Lincoln?
Kate Masur: “They Knew Lincoln” was never reprinted until now, and as a consequence, original editions became rare and very valuable. Used book dealers often sell it for $300 or more, and it was definitely not available in regular bookstores. I wanted to get “They Knew Lincoln” back in print precisely because I wanted people to be able to read and engage with African Americans’ stories about Lincoln and to know more about John E. Washington, the author of the book, and his motivations for writing it. More generally, historians have tended to focus much more on what Lincoln thought of Blacks than what they thought of him. The work of Benjamin Quarles is one major exception to that, and I definitely recommend his 1962 book, “Lincoln and the Negro.”
WI: Explain how, in your introduction to the book, you accomplish place Dr. John Washington’s book in its own context and explain its contents in light of both emancipation and Washington’s time when D.C. was a place of great opportunity and creativity for those from the Black elite.
Masur: I really enjoyed writing the introduction to the book. It was a kind of detective hunt — trying to track drown bits and pieces of John Washington’s life as a child, a student at M Street High School and Howard University, a teacher at Cardozo High School and a practicing dentist. He was an interesting and multidimensional person. The introduction also allowed me to cover a lot of ground in the history of Black Washington, D.C.
I wrote about Washington’s grandmother’s generation and the Civil War. I discussed about how upwardly mobile African Americans like Washington had many opportunities in D.C. in that era — particularly through terrific educational institutions. But I also covered how life in D.C. was complex, even for members of the elite like John Washington.
In the first two decades of the twentieth century, government leaders and private citizens increasingly demanded segregation in leisure activities and housing. White soldiers attacked Blacks in the “riot” of 1919. And so, although a person like John Washington could make his way quite successfully, he and his generation also faced a great deal of marginalization and discrimination.
WI: “They Knew Lincoln” reminds us of forms of communication that now seem antiquated, including letters or testimonials. Now we have faster, shorter, methods of messaging (as seen in social media). Is there a place for this book and its contents in the 21st century?
Masur: I hope so! While letters may be outdated, I don’t think that testimonials are. I hope the book reminds people of the importance of listening to and recording stories told by our elders. John Washington described how even as a child, he was fascinating by the storytelling of his grandmother’s friends. Later in life, he conducted oral histories in an effort to record voices and perspectives that would otherwise disappear from the historical record. Washington believed that everyone’s history was important — not just Lincoln’s, but everyone’s. I hope maybe the book will inspire people to sit down with older people and ask them questions about their lives and experiences. They might even want to record those interviews to future generations will know their stories.
WI: What exactly did the Emancipation Proclamation do? Many people are confused about whether Lincoln really “freed the slaves.”
Masur: The Emancipation Proclamation, issued Jan. 1, 1863, was a war measure and was not even intended to apply to all slaves everywhere. It declared the freedom of slaves living in the Confederacy, but it excepted people living in areas that were already occupied by the US army. The Proclamation was also not relevant for enslaved people in slaveholding states that had not joined the Confederacy: Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, and Delaware.
People sometimes say the Proclamation did absolutely nothing, since Lincoln did not have authority in the places where it was supposed to operate. That’s really not the case. The Proclamation authorized the U.S. army — as it moved through the Confederacy — to become an agent of liberation, and it authorized the enlisted men of black men as soldiers.
Some U.S. soldiers carried pocket-sized copies of the Emancipation Proclamation as they moved through the southern countryside. The army’s new mandate to destroy slavery helped empower enslaved people, who from the beginning of the war had been helping to destroy slavery by refusing to work and by running away. In short, the Proclamation did not “free the slaves,” but it was an important part of the process of bringing about slavery’s abolition.
WI: “They Knew Lincoln” features a number of people of color who knew the Lincolns, including William de Fleurville and Elizabeth Keckly. How and why did they emerge to be considered so influential in the lives of the Lincolns?
Masur: Fleurville and Keckly are among the better-known people John Washington wrote about. Born in Haiti, Fleurville was a prosperous barber in Springfield. He owned quite a bit of property, and Lincoln was his lawyer for property transactions. Keckly was a fine dress-designer who worked for Mary Lincoln and became her confidant. She wrote a book called “Behind the Scenes,” which was published in 1868. A 1935 controversy about Keckly and “Behind the Scenes” was what originally spurred John Washington to do research and write a book.
WI: Why should those in the 21st century, Black and/or white, still care about Abraham Lincoln?
Masur: Not everyone needs to care about Lincoln. But Lincoln is interesting in a lot of ways and presided over the nation during a hugely important period. He was a complex person and, in the end, a very skilled political leader.
His presidency intersected with the destruction of slavery in this country and debates about what the United States would be going forward. Many of the issues that continue to concern us today — about race, citizenship, inequality, voting rights, and regional identities — were critically important during Lincoln’s presidency.
I think we can all learn quite a bit by studying him and the period in which he lived. I also think looking at Lincoln in connection with African-American history — as John Washington did — makes the crucial point that Black history is central to American history. Black history not something that should be cordoned off and discussed once a year. It’s integral to the American narrative.