On its 100th birthday, the Lincoln Memorial still beckons a nation divided
The Washington Post May 29, 2022
For a century, an American icon carved from 175 tons of white marble has presided over the nation’s capital, beckoning thousands of visitors each day up his steps and into his hallowed chamber.
The Lincoln Memorial is by far the city’s most popular monument, attracting about 8 million people in a normal year. But what draws so many from every corner of the country and the world is as complicated as the slain president that the building immortalizes.
They come to learn, to give thanks, to protest, to be inspired, to propose, to eat lunch, to walk dogs, to peddle T-shirts, to snap selfies, to launch school trips, to shoot movie scenes, to share a kiss, to have a nightcap, to give speeches, to ask for votes, to pray for change, to mourn America’s greatest sin and remember its greatest ideals, to hope that the union Abraham Lincoln died to preserve will endure.
On May 30, a nation nearly as polarized as it was in Lincoln’s day will mark the 100th anniversary of the memorial’s dedication. And though he doesn’t appear to have aged much through the decades (kept youthful by a rigid skin-care routine of dusting, brushing and pressure washing), the centenarian has borne witness to history countless times.
On the steps in front of him, Marian Anderson sang for the nation in 1939, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. shared his dream in 1963. Beneath the 16th president’s steadfast gaze, African Americans, Native Americans, liberals, conservatives, independents, theists, atheists, hippies, veterans, anti-vaxxers, comedians, Juggalos and hundreds of other groups have gathered to demonstrate. On Jan. 6, 2021, he caught glimpses in the distance of insurrectionists storming the U.S. Capitol.
It was at the Lincoln that Jimmy Stewart’s Mr. Smith had an epiphany, that Forrest Gump reunited with the woman he loved, that the bachelors from “Wedding Crashers” finished a bottle of champagne, that Lisa from “The Simpsons” sought wisdom.
History doesn’t happen at the memorial every day, but something compelling or strange or funny or sad certainly does. In honor of the anniversary, Washington Post journalists chronicled one of those days, from sunup to sundown.
6:30 a.m. Lincoln logs
Dozens of people in athletic shirts and Spandex shorts raced up and down the memorial’s steps as six workers in yellow vests powered up their leaf blowers. The scent of gasoline and exhaust permeated the early morning air.
“Please, can you just move to the other side?” one of the workers asked the runners. “Just need a minute to clean.”
The members of the November Project — fitness devotees who meet at the memorial every Wednesday not to check out the president’s somber visage but to climb what they call “Lincoln logs” — made way for the cleaning crew.
The workers descended the steps in a line, their leaf blowers sending a plastic water bottle flying onto the lawn below. When they reached the landing, they turned around and returned to the top.
A puff of dust flew into a scrum of teenage girls from Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School taking selfies between the columns. They’d arrived at dawn wearing pleated green skirts, white sneakers and T-shirts from the colleges they’d be attending in the fall: Tulane. Syracuse. Wake Forest.
“I don’t see N.C. State,” observed Roy Williams Jr., a horse-mounted officer with the U.S. Park Police.
Now the girls, the runners and the cleaners were joined by Marines out on a jog and an NBC journalist conducting an interview with a congressional candidate beneath the shade of an elm.
Behind them, through the wide marble columns that hadn’t yet warmed in the afternoon heat, the roar of the leaf blowers was quieter.
Timothy Boyd, 52, stood below Lincoln’s massive legs and hoisted a 40-foot long pole topped by a soft bristle brush into the air. It resembled a giant toilet bowl cleaner.
Lincoln would be getting a steam bath the next day — but first, the preservationist needed to do something about the dust and bird poop. Boyd ran the brush down the slope of Lincoln’s nose and along the curve of his forehead.
By then, the president’s brief moment in the morning light had nearly passed. The sun was rising, the crowds were growing. A new day was underway.
8:40 a.m. Retirement’s rewards
Just steps from Lincoln, a couple from California sat at the top of the memorial. As they watched the crowds pass, Marlin Klatte, 68, and his wife Joyce Klatte, 70 — both newly retired and trying to figure out a different rhythm to their life — reminded each other how much had changed since the first time Marlin visited the memorial 15 years ago from their home in Simi Valley.
He was working as a propulsion engineer for NASA, and his visit to the memorial was rushed — wedged between business meetings.
“It’s so different now,” Marlin said. “You never get to savor it and just take it all in.”
Joyce rubbed his back affectionately.
They talked about the Washington marches and protests they’d seen on television over the decades and about the marches and clashes over the past year. About the ups and downs of the nation and the ups and downs in their own life.
It was good to have the time to think about it all in Lincoln’s presence.
10 a.m. Punching slavery
Inside the memorial, dozens of seventh-graders from the Potomac School rushed to finish a scavenger hunt devised by their history teachers.
Clutching a clipboard and their four-page assignment, three girls from the private school in Northern Virginia carefully counted the steps from the Reflecting Pool to Lincoln’s statue.
“Eighty-seven,” Taylor Shen, 13, concluded. “Wait, why’s that significant?”
“Ooooh, four score and seven years,” said her friend Grayson Crittenberger, also 13, jotting it down.
They wrote down the number of columns: “36, which symbolizes the states there were at the time” of Lincoln’s death on April 15, 1865.
They went to the wall inscribed with the Gettysburg Address and picked out three phrases particularly meaningful to them. Then they moved onto the man himself.
The girls just stood for a while, staring at the giant figure seated before them. The assignment said to list six things they noticed about Lincoln’s likeness.
“I dunno, he looks pretty serious?” said Chiara Mizzo.
“He looks like he’s in charge, like he knows he’s the man,” Taylor replied. “And he’s wearing formal attire. That’s something, right?”
“One of his hands looks like it’s curling into a fist, like he’s about to punch slavery in the mouth,” Chiara said, giggling.
Grayson studied the expression on his face and suddenly recalled something she’d heard on another field trip.
“The reason he’s squinting is he’s, like, looking forward into the future, the future of the nation.”
“Whoa!” the other two girls exclaimed, as they scribbled it down. “Good one!”
10:30 a.m. A house divided
The lectern had been set up by National Park Service rangers so school kids from the Washington region could deliver historical speeches. But as soon as Sephora Grey spotted it, the 24-year-old Georgetown Law Center graduate, clad in her black-and-purple cap and gown, commandeered it for a photo op.
Grey, who mentors younger students and has a podcast where she interviews successful African American women in law, can envision herself “giving speeches to hundreds of thousands of people, like many before have done here.”
At 11 a.m., a ranger clicked on the microphone.
Then Emory Springs, 12, a sixth-grader at Benjamin Tasker Middle School in Bowie, Md., approached.
“A house divided against itself cannot stand,” she declared, her voice rolling down the steps to the Reflecting Pool. “I believe that this government cannot endure permanently half-slave and half-free.”
It was Lincoln’s powerful “House Divided” speech, delivered in 1858 during his unsuccessful bid for the Senate. His opponent, Stephen A. Douglas, wanted to stick with the status quo, each state choosing its slaveholding status. Lincoln prophesied boldly — and correctly — this was no longer possible.
“I do not expect the Union to be dissolved,” Emory continued. “I do not expect the house to fall. But I do expect it will cease to be divided.”
She was polished in a royal blue blazer and long neat braids. And she was already ambitious, with plans to go to UCLA and become a psychiatrist to “help people with mental struggles.” But she was also nervous, not just because she had to go first, but also because she was delivering a Lincoln speech at the Lincoln Memorial.
“I kind of felt like he was watching over me when I was presenting,” she said later, “because he was right behind me.”
Noon The fun rangers
First things first: You are not to touch Mr. Lincoln.
Admire or equivocate, behold in reverie or with suspicion. Sit on the steps, if you must, and follow his marble gaze toward the troubled heart of American democracy. But don’t touch, don’t pat, don’t rub his feet for luck — and most certainly don’t do what a visitor now proposed to Park Service ranger David Smithey.
“I want to sit in his lap,” she said.
“You do not want to go to the D.C. jail,” Smithey, 50, replied with a tight smile.
Lauren DeVore, his co-worker, stared at him from beneath the broad brim of her hat.
“You speaking from experience?” she asked.
This is life for park rangers on the Mall. In the argot of the Park Service, they are interpretive rangers — or, as they like to put it, the fun rangers, not the gun rangers.
They would rather be explaining the historical minutiae of Ford’s Theatre or the World War II Memorial than deterring would-be Lincoln Memorial alpinists. During the noon hour, they were in their element, handing out maps and junior ranger badges beneath a green tent below the memorial. There was even a miniature statue of the seated Lincoln, for anyone particularly obsessed with touching his likeness.
For the memorial’s centennial, the rangers were trying to tell people about some of the civil rights history attached to the site. Smithey was particularly animated in discussing Anderson, the Black contralto who performed to an audience of 75,000 at the memorial in 1939 after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let her sing in Constitution Hall.
“Are these free?” one man asked, holding up a laminated card with Anderson’s photo on it.
“Oh, no,” Smithey said.
DeVore, 34, hailed a crowd of Old Glory Honor Flight veterans as they swept past the tent toward the memorial. Among them was Jim Bricco, 75, from Wisconsin.
“I’ve been here before,” Bricco said. “In 1968.”
Back then, Bricco was serving in the Old Guard at Arlington National Cemetery. The memorial, of course, was there, but in his telling, the rangers were not. Nobody stopped Bricco as he climbed up Lincoln’s gangly stone legs.
The young serviceman did not sit in Lincoln’s lap. But he did dangle for a while on his knee.
2:30 p.m. Skateboard skeptic
It was the warmest point of the day when Bryce Lawson and Sam Linder rolled up on colorful big-wheeled skateboards wearing business suits.
The newly minted alumni of George Washington University had visited Lincoln’s hallowed lair often throughout college, and they referred to the Mall as GW’s “backyard.”
On this day, the roommates were there to take graduation portraits, propping their skateboards behind the memorial’s pillars.
Like many African Americans born long after the civil rights era, Lawson doesn’t necessarily revere Lincoln as a hero. Still, the 22-year-old from Atlanta acknowledged that many Black people, especially older ones, put him on a pedestal for a reason.
“Out of the presidents, even my grandparents will say ‘He’s the one.’ He’s the one who invokes freedom,” said Lawson, as he stood at the back of the memorial in a black suit and crisp white shirt, the red and white stole of his Black fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi, draped across his broad shoulders.
But his own view of the role the president played during the Civil War and in ending slavery is more critical.
“Lincoln was in no way a prophet or a savior,” he said.
And yet Lincoln’s command of the Mall — a space that has been the stage for key moments in the long march toward Black freedom — is singular, Lawson and Linder agreed.
Linder, who is White and from Newton Mass., recalls his grandparents sharing what it was like to be present in 1963 as King thundered his “I Have A Dream” speech from the memorial’s steps.
“They told me that the outpouring of love and happiness was incredible,” Linder said. He credits Lincoln with “putting us on a path ... but there is still a lot more we need to do before there is equality for everyone.”
The photos all taken, the friends took a fleeting last look at Lincoln in his shaded majesty. Then they mounted their skateboards and zoomed away.
3:30 p.m. Profit motive
“Don’t let dehydration ruin your vacation!”
Troy Shells was shouting the pitch over and over from the base of the memorial, where he stood next to two coolers brimming with Gatorades, sodas and bottles of water.
The deal: Two dollars for a bottle of water. Four bucks for a Coke or a Gatorade.
But most people weren’t buying. Maybe it was the arrival of clouds and cooling temperatures. Or the fact that the prices reflected quite the markup.
Shells, a 19-year-old from Northeast D.C., said he and a few friends hawk drinks at the Lincoln and around the Mall almost every day in the summer.
On a good day, he claimed he could sell several hundred dollars of drinks. On a bad day, he said, police officers hassle them about needing permission.
“How are you doing today, sir?” he asked one man.
“Fine,” said the man, who darted off.
“Ice cold drinks you guys!” he said to one group of students.
They ignored him.
An elderly woman negotiated three bottles of water for three dollars.
“Thank you, sweetheart,” she told Shells.
He smiled. Staring up at Lincoln every day, he said, can be inspiring.
He wants to start his own business some day. “I want to make money,” he said. “Be my own boss.”
By 5 p.m., with rain drops falling, Shells cut his prices in half. “Happy hour!” he declared.
5:40 p.m. Wedding sprint
There was just 20 minutes until Karen De Waal and her husband of one hour, Christiaan, were supposed to arrive at their reception. Most of their marriage thus far had been spent stuck in traffic. But there was one photo worth hurtling out of the limo.
In a Princess Diana-replica tiara, a bedazzled wedding gown and 3-inch heels, Karen started sprinting.
“We have to see Lincoln!” she called.
On this day exactly two years before, she had been sitting on a bench in Judiciary Square, alone, when she noticed a man smiling at her. It was May 2020, and she’d been desperate to get out of her apartment. She didn’t plan on introducing herself to a total stranger.
But here she was, saying hi.
Soon they were walking the Mall together, learning the basics of each other’s lives: Christiaan was 38 and worked for the Dutch Embassy. Karen was 41 and worked for Homeland Security. Lincoln was 98 and watching them from a distance.
His monument was everything Karen loved about Washington: The grandeur! The history! She’d just moved back to D.C. after four years abroad. Four years in which her fantasy of a whirlwind international romance never materialized. She’d all but given up on dating, and then the pandemic had settled it for her. She was just going to be one of those people who didn’t find love.
But here she was, giving Christiaan her number.
Their first walk led to another, just as friends. Then came a date at Gravelly Point. A widening of their covid bubbles. A binge watching of “The Crown.”
He was a “go with the flow” guy. Her every moment was scheduled on Outlook.
She was a minimalist who avoided carbs. His kitchen was overflowing with gadgets, especially the ones for making pasta.
But here she was, devouring his lasagna.
Here he was, practicing being on time.
And when she surprised him on Christmas morning with a ring from Tiffany’s, he bought her one to match.
Now they were at the top of the famous steps, catching their breath between the columns.
“Why don’t you just take moment,” their photographer suggested. “Take it all in.”
Karen grabbed Christiaan’s hand. They turned toward each other. The pandemic still wasn’t over. A war had started with no end in sight. America felt nearly as divided as in Lincoln’s era.
But here they were, together.
“Let’s do it baby,” Karen said. The camera clicked.
7:25 p.m. Remains of the day
The golden hour had arrived, and with it, hundreds of celebrating graduates. But few had made their way to the back side of Lincoln’s cathedral, a haven of serenity on the edge of the Mall’s chaos.
Here on the western wall, a space frequented mostly by locals, three young women popped the cork on a bottle of sparkling rosé, a couple passed a joint back and forth and two friends sharing carrot cake peered into the blanket of purple clouds depriving them of a sunset.
Nearby, Araceli Ciriaco, a 22-year-old au pair, wrote in her journal. She’d moved to D.C. from Argentina just two months ago, but she looked like someone who had been coming to the Lincoln for years. Phoebe Bridgers played on her headphones as she sipped mate, a loose-leaf tea from her homeland.
Ciriaco knew nothing about the man whose statue stood in the building behind her, but she appreciated the respite he offered on her nights off.
Lincoln, of course, never got a night off, and that was especially true on this one. Like a tide reaching its peak, darkness brought with it hordes of school groups, running, pointing, posing. No one could blame them, though. The Great Emancipator is at his most regal at night, when the lights flicker on and a pair of deep, dark shadows settle upon his eyes.
It was just then that Jamal Alexis arrived, wading through the throng with two of his friends.
Alexis, 32, thought he’d never see this place in person. He’s from Houston but had been working on an oil rig in Delaware. On their last day up north, the men took an impromptu trip to D.C., and there was nothing Alexis wanted to see more than Lincoln.
Alexis, who is Black, knew that such a moment with his friends, who are White, might not have been possible without the man behind him.
“This is me giving my thanks to him,” Alexis said, and when he was done, he headed down the stairs, passing through a new crowd headed up, toward the glow beyond the columns.