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Book explores Black Americans’ thoughts about Lincoln

From the book cover
From the book cover

Two people with ties to Galesburg have released a collection of speeches, letters, and other meditations by African Americans on the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln.

“This began in earnest in the summer of 2011. That’s when we really began to work on searching for and compiling all of these different perspectives from African Americans on Abraham Lincoln,” said Matthew Norman, who worked on the project with Fred Lee Hord.

The result is “Knowing Him by Heart: African Americans on Abraham Lincoln.” The book is published by University of Illinois Press.

Lincoln is one of the most written about figures in history. There are thousands of books about him, but this one is unique.

“What we’ve cobbled together is a first,” said Hord. “There are books about Lincoln by Blacks, but none do what we did. And we think that’s significant.”

Hord is an Emeritus Full Professor in Africana Studies at Knox College and a former Chair of the department.

Norman is an associate professor of history at the University of Cincinnati, Blue Ash College. (full disclosure: Norman is married to Tri States Public Radio General Manager Heather Norman)

Norman said Hord was one of his teachers at Knox College. He said Hord reached out to him years later about collaborating on a book, suggesting they combine their interests in Lincoln and African Americans.

Hord said the book begins around the time Lincoln rose to national prominence and covers a lengthy period of time.

“(The book) goes from 1858 to just after the first election of Barack Obama. We cover more than a century-and-a-half,” said Hord.

The book includes more than 200 pieces. Some of them are from well-known African American historians, poets, activists, and more. Others are from lesser-known Black Americans.

Norman said he and Hord had no agenda other than to find as much as they could regarding African American voices on Lincoln.

“In the book, you will find very positive, uncritical views of Lincoln. You will find very negative views on Lincoln. And you will find a lot of nuanced views,” Norman said.

Norman said, for example, that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. praised the Emancipation Proclamation as one of the two great American documents of freedom (the other being the Declaration of Independence).

“But a common theme that you see in King and other people in our book is that while the Emancipation Proclamation was great, 100 years later it’s still an unfulfilled promise. That’s really the thrust of King’s remarks and the remarks of a lot of the other people we have from the 1960s,” Norman said.

“You have to give some credit to Lincoln for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. But after 100 years there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done.”

A second edition of the book is possible, according to Hord, who would like to include more content from African American women.

“We tried to make sure that we had a fair representation of women, who are virtually absent in terms of publications when we started,” Hord said.

“You can find very few things, even in little newspapers, by Black women.”

Hord said they gave it a good shot and feel good about what they did include. He is anxious to get back to searching for more Black women’s voices on Lincoln.

The book is a volume in The Knox College Lincoln Studies Center Series, edited by Douglas Wilson.

Tri States Public Radio produced this story.  TSPR relies on financial support from our readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.

Rich is TSPR's News Director.