Freedom’s Eve at the Archives

Tonight most of us in the District will be spending New Year’s Eve celebrating with a watch party to see the ball drop in Times Square.

Sally Fickland, a former slave, views the Emancipation Proclamation in Philadelphia in 1947.
Sally Fickland, a former slave, views the Emancipation Proclamation in Philadelphia in 1947. (Photo: National Archives)

But every December 31st, there’s another type of watch night gathering – one that commemorates the Emancipation Proclamation going into effect on January 1, 1863.

The very first Watch Night was held around the country on New Year’s Eve 1862, by African Americans and abolitionists waiting to hear word that Abraham Lincoln had signed the Proclamation.

The night was dubbed Freedom’s Eve, and witnessed the first major step toward the abolition of slavery in the United States. It also added a new significance to what had been an end-of-year religious tradition for many Protestant churches by creating a new tradition for African American churches.

This New Year’s Eve, in honor of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the National Archives is joining the festivities and staying up late.

The Archives will be open until 1 AM with the Emancipation Proclamation on display.

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Unbuilt Washington

In conversation, some things are better left unsaid – and in the Historic District, some things are better left unbuilt.

That’s the unspoken commentary behind a new exhibit that opened at the National Building Museum this past weekend. “Unbuilt Washington” explores the monuments and buildings – and occasional Venetian-style canal – that might have graced the District, if only they had made it past the drawing board.

There’s the colossal pyramid honoring Abraham Lincoln, or the medieval-style Memorial Bridge dedicated to Ulysses S. Grant, or the new executive mansion built further up 16th Street, atop Meridian Hill.

The U.S. Grant Memorial Bridge
The U.S. Grant Memorial Bridge

As a D.C. guide, I thought this exhibit was a pretty fascinating tour of an alternate Washington. And with Thanksgiving approaching, I was also left feeling grateful that some of these outlandish structures were left unbuilt – either through lack of funds, shifting priorities, or public outcry.

The exhibit reminds you that from its inception, the federal capital has presented a veritable blank slate for architectural imaginations and often competing notions of national expression.

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The White House Easter Egg Roll

Yesterday morning I was at the White House for an historic Washington tradition – the President’s annual Easter Egg Roll.

I went with a good friend and her young son, traipsing through the morning mist along the Ellipse and, after waiting in several lines and security checks, eventually onto the South Lawn.

Attending a White House event these days is a little like a trip to the airport.

South Lawn of the White House in the morning mist
South Lawn of the White House in the morning mist (Photo: Robert Yule)

We followed along as my friend’s son took part in a variety of activities,  starting with the famous Easter Egg Rolling Race itself. The race is a more recent tradition, started in 1974 using spoons from the White House kitchen and eggs hard boiled by White House chefs.

It basically involves pushing an egg with a wooden spoon through the grass to the finish line.

Trust me, not as easy as it sounds.

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The Conspirator Theories

The Conspirator Movie Poster
The Conspirator Movie Poster

So I just saw the movie The Conspirator last night, opening in the District on the same day that Abraham Lincoln died – April 15, 146 years ago.

I missed the red carpet premiere at Ford’s Theatre last week – complete with director Robert Redford and all the movie’s stars, including Robin Wright, James McAvoy, and Kevin Cline.

But I did get to see the film just three blocks from Ford’s Theatre, where the 16th president was shot on April 14.

And I was just one block away from the boarding house of one of the alleged conspirators, Mary Surratt, whose trial is the subject of the film.

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Lincoln Cottage Conversation with James Swanson

Yesterday – on the anniversary of the day that Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theatre – I found myself back at the Lincoln Cottage for my first Cottage Conversation.

The Lincoln Cottage - 4.14.11
President Lincoln’s Cottage

It’s a fantastic lecture series held upstairs in the historic home where Lincoln and his family regularly stayed during the Civil War, taking refuge from the heat and stress of the city.

As the evening’s speaker pointed out, Lincoln’s last stay at the cottage was on April 13, a peaceful day before that fateful trip to Ford’s the next night.

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Mr. Lincoln Comes to Washington (Again)

I was standing in the cold on the platform of Union Station yesterday, waiting expectantly with camera in hand for the president to arrive.  The 11:21 AM train had just pulled in and was emptied of people, but its most important passenger was still on board.

A small cluster of Amtrak officials and security guards stood nearby. I recognized Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Interior, as he walked by (such is the nature of our celebrities in the District). He was escorted into the train by National Park Service rangers to officially welcome the president to Washington.

Abraham Lincoln at Amtrak in Washington, D.C.
Lincoln meets and greets at the Amtrak terminal in Union Station. (Photo: Robert Yule)

Eventually I saw an entourage of police, officials, reporters, and photographers emerge from the car and walk toward me on the platform, all surrounding the District’s most important new resident. Finally, he came into view. The former senator from Illinois was taller than I expected, but I couldn’t yet see his face.

What I saw first was the top of his stovepipe hat.

Then I saw the long face, the hollow cheeks, the short beard. There was no mistaking it – Mr. Lincoln had arrived (again) in the District.

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The Douglass-Lincoln Debates

Two iconic Americans – and former District residents – celebrated birthdays in the past few days: President Abraham Lincoln on February 12th, and abolitionist Frederick Douglass on February 14th.

Both men played integral roles in bringing about the ending of slavery. And though they often were at odds, they developed a unique friendship toward the end of Civil War, which began 150 years ago in April.

I recently traveled across the Anacostia River to visit Frederick Douglass’s home, Cedar Hill.

Cedar Hill
Frederick Douglass’s home, Cedar Hill, in the Anacostia neighborhood.

It’s in the neighborhood of Old Anacostia, and I’ve been meaning to take a tour of the house for about as long as I’ve lived in the District.

Cedar Hill is in a part of the city that many Washingtonians and most tourists never visit – east of the river.

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