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How much did African-Americans shape President Lincoln’s views?

black and white photo of Abraham Lincoln

EVANSTON - First published in 1942, “They Knew Lincoln” by John E. Washington (1880-1964) sold out quickly and was never reprinted. The author, a pioneering of Black dentist who was also a public school teacher, delved into the question of how much African-Americans shaped President Abraham Lincoln’s views on slavery and race -- a perspective often left out of early Lincoln biographies. 

Now more than 75 years later, a new edition of “They Knew Lincoln” (Oxford University Press, February 2018) includes a new introduction by Northwestern University’s Kate Masur, associate professor of history in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, detailing why the original publication of the book was groundbreaking and examining the importance of this work in today’s context.

Masur said the book’s very existence challenged people’s tendency to exclude or diminish the testimony of African-Americans.

“It broke new ground by arguing that African-Americans were not simply passive recipients of Lincoln’s benevolence, but shaped his attitudes,” Masur writes in the introduction.

She said “They Knew Lincoln” is important because it describes the lives of people who wouldn’t otherwise be known to history. 

“For instance, Mary Dines, who taught literacy and led the choir at a refugee camp in Washington, or Phoebe Bias, who attended a Watch Night service in a black church on the eve of the Emancipation Proclamation -- we are all lucky that John E. Washington listened to these women and preserved their stories as he remembered them,” Masur said. 

However, she also acknowledges the book’s shortcomings.

“The book mixes first-hand accounts with documents, oral histories and other information, and it can be a bit challenging to read,” Masur said. “My hope is that having the context I provided in the introduction will help readers understand why the book took the shape it did.” 

In addition to the stories told by his grandmother’s elderly friends in Washington, D.C., Washington also researched little-known African-American figures in the Lincolns’ lives, including William Slade, messenger in Lincoln’s White House; William de Fleurville, Lincoln’s Haitian-born barber, thought to be a crucial influence; and Elizabeth Keckly, Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker and confidante.  

Washington, who thought of Lincoln as a “true humanitarian,” made a strong claim that African-Americans held the Lincolns in high esteem following the Civil War. But Lincoln was not without his African-American critics.

“One of the things historians really appreciate is historical complexity and variety,” Masur said. “Lincoln was not as progressive on slavery and race as many people wish he had been, and one of the central questions in Lincoln scholarship has been how best to understand his slow and sometimes halting approach to emancipation and his difficulty imagining the United States as a multiracial nation.” 

Black activist and sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois expressed a nuanced view of Lincoln in the early 1920s, Masur said. Du Bois wrote the following: 

“At the crisis he was big enough to be inconsistent--cruel, merciful; peace-loving, a fighter; despising Negroes and letting them fight and vote; protecting slavery and freeing slaves. He was a man--a big, inconsistent, brave man.” 

“Whereas Du Bois attempted to account for Lincoln’s complexities, Washington saw him in a more unvarnished way, as a hero who always sympathized with the downtrodden,” Masur said. “As an historian, I wanted to try to account for why it was so important to Washington to write about Lincoln in that way.”

Describing the book as part memoir and part history, Masur said “They Knew Lincoln” became the first book to bring black perspectives of Lincoln directly into the homes and collections of white Lincoln fans and the white reading public.

While some Lincoln biographers and book reviewers initially downplayed the book’s significance and accuracy, Masur said historians would subsequently return to Washington’s book because his interviews with people who had encountered the Lincolns were unique and could never be replicated or confirmed.

“At a time when few people thought to ask how African-Americans might have influenced Lincoln’s outlook and decisions, Washington asked the question and began to answer it,” Masur said. “His book remains a decisive reminder of the centrality of African-American history to the nation’s past.”

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