One of Knox College’s strong historical connections is that it is the last remaining site of one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. From the Lincoln Historical Center to the tongue-in-cheek Lincoln impersonator brought to campus every Flunk Day, President Abraham Lincoln is an important part of Knox College’s present and past. Despite Knox’s celebration of Lincoln, the president’s image as an anti-slavery icon is often challenged.
Associate Professor of Political Science Duane Oldfield believes that the celebration of Lincoln is well deserved because of Knox College’s history as an abolitionist college and Lincoln’s ties to the abolitionist movement, but acknowledges that there are other issues that should be brought up.
“We certainly do a tremendous amount of [celebrating] Lincoln É obviously we don’t do quite as much with the more troubling or less complimentary to Knox part of our history,” Oldfield said.
Oldfield feels that the celebration of Lincoln’s legacy in Knox is in part due to Knox “playing up” historical connections. He mentioned that Lincoln knew that an abolitionist perspective would be well received at Knox, which influenced his speech for the debate.
Oldfield also referred to Barnabas Root, the first black graduate in Illinois who is a Knox alumni. However, it is documented that Root faced prejudice on campus and that he considered transferring.
“While [President Lincoln] certainly helped to politically advance the cause of abolition, there are quotes of his that, if looked at from today’s perspective, would show that Lincoln wasn’t necessarily fully accepting of Black equality,” Oldfield said.
Oldfield brought up the fact that it would be nice to see the college branch out in terms of who and what we pay attention to, as there are some figures that are focused on so heavily that it erases other historical points in Knox’s history.
Lincoln’s mass hanging:
Bright Distinguished Associate Professor of American History Cate Denial thinks that the problematic aspects of Lincoln’s presidency tend to be glossed over. She brought up the fact that Lincoln signed the order that sentenced 33 members of the Dakota tribe to be hung after the 1862 Dakota War, making it the largest mass hanging in American history.
“It was a preemptive trial, they were not given fair representation. Many of them may have not been actually involved in the Dakota War,” Denial said.
She stated that this event is not taught because it corrupts the memory of Lincoln being perceived as “The Great Emancipator,” when in all actuality, the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free anyone. The proclamation made it so that enslaved people who were living in confederate states could be freed but not until the arrival of union troops. For this, Denial believes that Lincoln is glorified in ways that he doesn’t deserve.
“It made it possible for some enslaved people to create their own freedom eventually, but that was their doing more than it was Lincoln’s,” Denial said.
Denial is appreciative of how Knox celebrates the historical connection to Lincoln. She particularly enjoys the anecdote of Lincoln climbing through the window in Old Main and joking that he had now passed through college. However, she also acknowledges that it is important to be critical surrounding the negative aspects of Lincoln.
Professor of Africana Studies Frederick Hord has recently finished his book on Abraham Lincoln from the perspective of Black scholars over the last 150 years. Compiled with the help of a junior editor, the book’s working title is “The Reluctant Emancipator.”
“The truth doesn’t always look pretty É [in the book] we demythologized Lincoln and this is not what we think, it is what we saw in our research,” Hord said.
Hord’s main concern prior to the release of his book is how people will react to the information presented. He states that he and his junior editor did not begin writing the book with a certain position, but rather let the compiled information influence their opinion.
“My concern is that because people have not studied Lincoln, that there are going to be people who [respond] knee-jerk in a negative way because we had no axe to grind,” Hord said.
Hord mentioned that the research for this book was so extensive that the book will have to be split into two volumes. As a derivative of this book there will be another book that will compile the most important information from the two volumes so that it can be adapted and taught in a class.
While the professors all agree that changes need to be made, ways in which to make those changes were less clear. Professor Hord brought up the idea of Knox hosting dialogues in which common myths and misconceptions can be addressed and dispelled.