By Edward Epstein
January 2, 2024
Hard-working, veteran Washington Post local news columnist John Kelly -- who helped make the Lincoln Group's celebration of the Lincoln Memorial's centennial a rousing and poignant success -- has retired from the paper after churning out some 4,600 columns over 20 years. We'll miss him.
This story is a personal one for me. As the Lincoln Group officer tasked with getting publicity for the May 22, 2022, commemorative event the group planned at the memorial in conjunction with the National Park Service, I thought it would be great if we could track down descendants of Robert Russa Moton, the lone black speaker at the memorial's segregated dedication back in 1922. The speech planned by Moton, head of what was then known as the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, was too radical, organizers led by Chief Justice and former President William Howard Taft told Moton.
Moton wanted to say that as long as America's black population was treated as second-class citizens Lincoln's work was undone. "So long as any group is denied the fullest privilege of a citizen to share both the making and the execution of the law which shapes its destiny — so long as any group does not enjoy every right and every privilege that belongs to every American citizen without regard to race, creed or color, the task for which the immortal Lincoln gave the last full measure of devotion — that task is still unfinished.” That's what he wanted to say.
Taft ordered 500 words cut from Moton's planned remarks, instead insisting that Moton and other speakers stick to the far less controversial idea that Lincoln was being honored because he saved the union from splitting in two. Segregation was just too thorny an issue to be brought up.
So in early 2022 I did a little research and found that Moton and his second wife Jennie had five children. The only one I could find much about was Charlotte Moton Hubbard, who lived in Washington and was an assistant secretary of state at the State Department during the Johnson administration. One of her tasks was trying to eliminate discrimination against black military personnel during the Vietnam War.
I thought that the search for the Moton family would make a natural column for Kelly (pictured to the right), who loves such off-beat local stories. I called him and he immediately bit. His column, headlined "As Lincoln Memorial turns 100, group hopes to right a century-old wrong," appeared on March 22, 2022. He asked if anyone knew where any Motons were today.
I got a few tips that weren't much help as a result, but the column was read by a few Lincoln Group members who are deep into geneology and tracking people down. Within a short time we had found Moton descendants living in Florida and Georgia. One group member, who wishes to remain anonymous, donated money to pay to fly the Motons to Washington and stay for a few nights in a hotel so they could be guests of honor on May 22.
Fast forward to the day of the event and Moton's great-grandson, Robert D. Moton, his wife Jennifer Hardy-Moton and their daughter Parker were there, front and center. Also on hand was Consuela Austin, another great-grandchild of Moton.
Kelly was there too, reporting for another column that appeared in the Post the next morning. “What you want to say and what you are allowed to say are different,” Consuela told Kelly, looking back at the events of 1922.
Kelly is leaving the Post as part of cost-cutting effort by the paper, which is owned be Jeff Bezos of Amazon, one of the world's richest men. Kelly's parting advice to his readers was to be aware of the great stories all around them. "Go outside. Open your eyes. Take a walk. The whole world is a newspaper. There are columns all around us," he wrote..
Photo of Motons by Ed Epstein. Photo of John Kelly by John O'Brien.