Turning the Clock Back to May 1922

By Wendy Swanson

Washington, D.C.

Thursday, May 12, 2022


(Editor's note: This is the first in a series of three blogs that tell the story of the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922. The three blogs originally appeared as a single article in the Winter 2022 edition of the Lincoln Group's Lincolnian newsletter.)


As a starting point for planning this year’s centennial commemoration of the Lincoln Memorial’s dedication, the Lincoln Group looked back 100 years to study the original ceremony and to use that event as a blueprint of sorts for designing a program for today, We soon saw that certain aspects of the Lincoln legacy, so important in recent times, were not prominent themes, if included at all, in the original festivities. History marches on and our 2022 ceremony will reflect Lincoln through the eyes of today and into the future.


What was it like to attend that ceremony, who was there, what did they say and what was missing? Herein we offer a portrait of the event.


The official program for the original dedication had a rather straight forward agenda:

· An invocation by the Rev. Wallace Radcliffe of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church

· Presentation of the Colors, the Grand Army of the Republic

· Address: Dr. Robert R. Moton

· Poem: Edwin Markham

· Presentation: William Howard Taft

· Acceptance: The President of the United States

· Benediction (and consecration of the Memorial – Rev. Radcliffe)


If we were transported back in time to that day in 1922, those who know their history would not necessarily be surprised but still would find jarring the segregated nature of the event. This after all was the era of Jim Crow. Remember, themes such as emancipation and voting rights were left out of the design of the memorial because of the culture of the day, i.e., segregation. African-Americans who arrived early to honor Father Abraham with hopes of gaining a prime viewing spot near the front of the crowd were not only disappointed but rather rudely led to a “colored section” far from the main activity. Meanwhile, a group of Confederate veterans, dressed in their gray uniforms, received seats of honor alongside their counterparts in blue, the Union veterans. The themes of reunion and saving the union were clearly visible.


The Speakers: Two of the main speakers at the event – William Howard Taft and the U.S. President (in 1922, that official was Warren G. Harding) were predicable – we would consider them “givens” for this particular type event. After all, Taft, the president who signed the bill to create the Lincoln Memorial, also served as the chairman of the Lincoln Memorial Commission. As if that was not enough, he also was the nation’s Chief Justice. He had the honor at the ceremony of presenting the Memorial to Harding, the U.S. President, as a gift to the nation. Harding, in turn, was there to accept this offering on behalf of the county. No surprises there!


The dedication’s third major speaker was Dr. Robert R. Moton, selected to give the keynote address and the only African American with a primary role to play at the program. Moton had become president of Tuskegee Institute following the death of its founder and first president, Dr. Booker T. Washington. A civil rights activist, he had written President Harding a letter offering suggestions on improving race relations and was a presidential advisor on this subject. Moton, a nationally well-known African-American leader, was conservative in nature and the Memorial Commission’s “careful” choice to “represent his race” by giving the keynote address. However, he was not given equal treatment.


The picture above shows the crowd, estimated at over 50,000, gathered at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial on May 30, 1922. Microphones and amplifiers were used to enable attendees to hear the program. (Photo credit: Library of Congress)


To be continued: in the next blog: The speakers.


Don't forget to join us on May 22nd on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for our centennial celebration organized by the Lincoln Group of DC and National Park Service and co-sponsored by the Lincoln Forum. And check out all the other events we have going on this month to commemorate the Memorial's 100th anniversary. [Click on the "Events" tab to see it all]