Few places are better suited to discuss Abraham Lincoln’s complicated relationships with African Americans than Evanston, in Lincoln’s home state with a large and vibrant African American community for 150 years. When John E. Washington’s groundbreaking book “They Knew Lincoln” was published in 1942, both its premise and its release were microcosms of the ever-changing and unchanging race relations in the country.
The book took a new look at the influence and partnerships African Americans had with Lincoln throughout his political life and their impact upon his most monumental actions. Ironically, the White liberal support that got the book released also led to its burial soon after.
Last year, “They Knew Lincoln” finally got its second printing, and it comes with a new, insightful 80-page introduction written by Northwestern University professor Kate Masur. She will join the Evanston Public Library History and African American Literature book groups’ discussion at 7 p.m. on May 6 in the third-floor Falcon Room. Registration is strongly recommended, and although reading the book is also recommended, it is not compulsory to attend the discussion.
The book marked the first public discussion of the agency African-Americans had in their own emancipation. Mr. Washington wanted to make very clear how Abraham Lincoln’s growing up and then leading the country in an interracial environment influenced his views on slavery and justice. He considered his African American servants, his barber, his bodyguard and his neighbors to be informal advisors in matters of race.
“Up until then, the notion was that Lincoln was the White savior who single-handedly emancipated African Americans from slavery,” said Jeffrey Garrett, Evanston librarian and convener of the library’s history book group. “The story was also always steeped in Christian imagery; that Abe was the one who gave his life so we might live.”
Professor Masur notes in her introduction another interesting fact from the period of this book. Mr. Washington’s White benefactors wanted to help him, but whenever they endorsed the book, it’s discussed almost condescendingly, as something not as good as what a White person would have written. And when it went out of print, they did not help him get a second book published.
Discussing with a group of readers of the same book is almost always stimulating. “There are many moments at the discussion groups where someone talks about a sentence or phrase that jumped out at them that maybe others read right past,” says librarian and book group coordinator Heather Norborg. “Seeing through others’ eyes gives participants a fresh perspective to re-read a book or re-examine an assumption. And that is really the premise of this book and the new introduction.” And this time that discussion will include the author of the new introduction as a resource and active participant.
Copies of the book are available for loan at the Readers Services Desk on the 2nd floor.