The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Addressing a wrong from 1922 at the centennial of the Lincoln Memorial

Jennifer Hardy-Moton, left, and Robert D. Moton with their daughter, Parker, and Consuela Austin at the Lincoln Memorial centennial celebration. Cousins Robert and Consuela are great-grandchildren of Robert Russa Moton, the leader of the Tuskegee Institute who spoke at the memorial's dedication in 1922. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
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Before the speeches and the singing, the poetry and the picture-taking, Robert D. Moton and his wife, Jennifer Hardy-Moton, stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial and let me pester them with questions. Suddenly, they realized something: They had both visited the Lincoln Memorial in 1985, Jennifer on a seventh-grade class trip, Robert on a family vacation.

“We were here at the same time and didn’t know it,” Robert said. It was another entry for the Moton family history book. The pages of that metaphorical book are filled with the best and the worst of our nation’s past.

Robert is the great-grandson of Robert Russa Moton, the Tuskegee Institute head who was the only African American invited to speak at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial on May 30, 1922. The centennial of that event was marked Sunday by the Lincoln Group of the District of Columbia and the National Park Service.

The dedication in 1922 was segregated. Fifty-seven years after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Black people were made to sit apart from White people. And the first draft of the speech by Moton was deemed too confrontational by the White organizers. William Howard Taft, the U.S. chief justice and former president, sent Moton a telegram asking him to cut 500 words and not include “propaganda” touching on the unfulfilled aspects of Lincoln’s promise of equality.

Two months ago, I wrote about how the Lincoln Group was hoping to provide some redress at the centennial. They were looking for Moton descendants. Someone who read my column found Robert and his cousin Consuela Austin and funded their visit. Robert, 43, and Jennifer, 48, flew in from Atlanta with their 9-year-old daughter, Parker. Consuela, 53, came up from Kissimmee, Fla.

The four had seats in the front row. They stood when David Kent, president of the Lincoln Group, introduced them. The Sunday ceremony was about history, but also about how yesterday reverberates through today.

Edna Greene Medford, an emeritus professor of history from Howard University, spoke of the “privilege and burden” Moton faced at the dedication. It was only later, she said, that figures such as Marian Anderson and Martin Luther King Jr. were able to use the memorial as a backdrop to illustrate how the exceptionalism our country claimed for itself was more of an aspiration than a reality for some Americans.

Charlotte Morris, the head of what is now Tuskegee University, also spoke of those aspirations, saying that Lincoln might shed a “mournful tear” at the state of the nation, when the cancer of the “big lie” threatens to infect state legislatures and some factions try to unravel the rights guaranteed to each of us.

Frank Smith, director of the African American Civil War Museum, spoke of the Emancipation Proclamation, of Lincoln’s desire for African American troops, of Smith’s own work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to secure voting rights for Black citizens in the 1960s. “You can win those rights, lose those rights, and then have to win them all over again,” Smith said.

When the speeches were over, all the attendees were invited to stand at the memorial for a big group photo. There were Lincoln buffs, Tuskegee grads, Civil War reenactors and random tourists. A few of the tourists wore red “Make America Great Again” hats. I wondered if they heard what had been said and whether they believed it.

Later, in the cool of the memorial’s hall, under the gaze of the Lincoln statue sculpted by Daniel Chester French, I spoke with the Motons again.

“It’s part of us,” Robert said of his great-grandfather’s experiences. It’s a story he heard growing up, how his namesake ancestor spoke on this very spot, his words censored.

“What you want to say and what you are allowed to say are different,” Consuela said. Yet she takes pride in what Moton achieved: the head of a college, a confidant of presidents.

Parker, a third-grader, said her favorite parts of the ceremony were when Washington actress Felicia Curry sang the national anthem and a spiritual. “We talk with Parker about the history of her family,” said Jennifer. “We tell her that greatness lies within her bloodline.”

They tell her that nothing should deter her from achieving her dreams.