The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As Lincoln Memorial turns 100, group hopes to right a century-old wrong

Robert Russa Moton, principal of the Tuskegee Institute, at the Lincoln Memorial dedication in 1922. He was one of the speakers at the event. (Library of Congress)
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Robert Russa Moton had five children: Catherine, Charlotte, Robert Jr., Allen and Jennie. Are you descended from any of them? Do you know anyone who is? If so, the Lincoln Group would like to hear from you.

The Lincoln Group of the District of Columbia sounds like a lobbying firm, but it’s the oldest organization devoted to the study of Abraham Lincoln.

“He’s the most written-about person in U.S. history by far: 20,000 books and counting,” said Ed Epstein, secretary of the Lincoln Group.

Lincoln Group members love exploring all aspects of the 16th president’s life — and what has happened since that life ended. That includes what happened on May 30, 1922, the day the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated on the National Mall.

That’s where Robert Russa Moton comes in. He was the second principal of the Tuskegee Institute, the Alabama college founded by Booker T. Washington. Moton was the only African American speaker invited to address the crowd at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial.

For an event supposedly celebrating the man who freed enslaved people — Moton was himself the son of a man born into slavery — Black people were treated abysmally at the ceremony. The seating was segregated, with Black attendees forced to sit separately from White ones. And Moton was told by the event’s White organizers that the first draft of his speech was too confrontational.

Epstein said the Lincoln Group would like to invite Moton’s descendants to the centennial, to be held on the steps of the memorial on May 22.

“We would like them to know that we're honoring him, that he’s going to be a big part of the program,” said Epstein, 69. “We can't pay for them to come from around the country, but we would love to honor them.”

Moton was seen as a safe choice by the White organizers of the dedication, who included former president and then-Chief Justice William Howard Taft.

Moton “was a disciple of Booker T. Washington at the Tuskegee Institute,” said Epstein. “He was known as an accommodationist, not as a civil rights rabble-rouser.”

But his first draft was deemed inappropriate.

In a telegram to Moton, Taft wrote: “Shall have to ask you to cut five hundred words, and suggest that in making the cut you give more unity and symmetry by emphasizing tribute and lessening appeal. I am sure you wish to avoid any insinuation of attempt to make the occasion one for propaganda.”

In other words: We’d prefer you talk about the good work Lincoln did, not the fact that so much work remains to be done.

Among the passages Moton excised from his final speech was this one, referring to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: “So long as any group is denied the fullest privilege of a citizen to share both the making and the execution of the law which shapes its destiny — so long as any group does not enjoy every right and every privilege that belongs to every American citizen without regard to race, creed or color, the task for which the immortal Lincoln gave the last full measure of devotion — that task is still unfinished.”

Epstein said the entire dedication downplayed the thorny issue of equal rights, with no mention of Jim Crow or the violent racism Black Americans still faced.

“It fit into the atmosphere of 1922, which was that the war reunited the nation and Lincoln saved the union,” he said.

Left unmentioned was why the nation needed saving in the first place.

“And,” said Epstein, “the ceremony was completely segregated, with Black people pushed off to one side.”

Moton delivered his edited speech. He died in 1940. With his second wife, Jennie, he’d had five children. One was Charlotte Moton Hubbard, who lived in Washington and was an assistant secretary of state at the State Department during the Johnson administration. Among her projects was working to eliminate discrimination against Black servicemen during the Vietnam War.

Charlotte died in 1994, apparently without children, but some of her siblings had children. If any of them are reading, drop me an email — john.kelly@washpost.com — and I’ll forward it to the Lincoln Group.

Epstein — a retired journalist who lives in Chevy Chase, Md. — said this May’s centennial event will note Moton’s keynote address and the way Taft censored it. Charlotte P. Morris, the president of what is now Tuskegee University, will be one of the featured speakers.

The events of 1922 can seem like ancient history, those of 1865 even more so. But Epstein said that among the members of the Lincoln Group is a man named Daniel Smith, who is the son of a man who was enslaved.

“His father was born in 1863,” said Epstein. “That’s how recent slavery is.”

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