HM - Mar. 2015 - Madeja
Remembering (and Teaching) Lincoln:
the 150th Anniversary of his Assassination
by Michael Madeja
On the night of April 14, 1865, actor Harry Hawk delivered a zinger of a line from the stage of Ford’s Theatre: “You sockdologizing old man-trap!” It swept the audience into uproarious laughter; they were joyously distracted. John Wilkes Booth, a famous actor familiar with both the play and the theatre, anticipated the distraction and seized the moment. His careful planning and some grim serendipity led to this moment. A new distraction swept through the audience—the sixteenth President of the United States had been shot. The assassin carried out the crime with a .44 caliber derringer pistol. Abraham Lincoln, mortally wounded, slumped forward in his chair. American history was forever altered in this single instant.
Rigorous historical research and countless written works continue to immortalize that moment and the surrounding events from 150 years ago. Both an active stage and historic site, Ford’s Theatre and its adjacent Center for Education and Leadership invite visitors to its buildings and website to engage and grapple with this crucial moment in American history. Visiting such a historic site fosters connection to and curiosity about the past through interaction with artifacts and the power of place. Historic sites provide a clear visualization of where, how and why history was made—they make the past tangible. Ford’s Theatre harnesses these qualities to engage learners around the memory of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and his lasting legacy.
With the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination approaching in April 2015, the staff of Ford’s Theatre Society is keenly aware that many teachers will be seeking opportunities to connect their students to that significant moment in American history. We also know that most teachers do not have the resources or proximity to visit us here in Washington, D.C. Thus, this spring for the first time Ford’s Theatre will offer the chance to access the authenticity, primary sources and big ideas that a visit to our Washington, D.C., location would provide—virtually!
Additionally, Ford’s Theatre is creating a range of digital tools to further the study of Lincoln’s leadership and legacy. While nothing can replace a visit to the places where history happened, the Ford’s Theatre’s Virtual Field Trip and the new Remembering Lincoln project arespecial resources meant to last beyond the sesquicentennial of Lincoln’s assassination.
Ford’s Theatre Virtual Field Trip
On March 26, 2015, at 1:00 p.m. ET, Ford’s Theatre will offer a Virtual Field Trip, in partnership with Discovery Education, to be webcast FREE online and available for any teacher to project into his or her classroom. The VFT will include a behind-the-scenes tour of the theatre with Washington’s Chief of Police from 1865, interviews with Ford’s Theatre teaching artists and discussions with National Park Service Rangers. For those who cannot watch live on March 26, the Virtual Field Trip will be recorded and available on the Ford’s website beginning April 13, 2015. Additionally, Ford’s Theatre staff will offer a live Q&A session to accompany the recorded Virtual Field Trip on April 14 at 1:00 p.m. ET, the 150th anniversary of the assassination.
In addition to the Virtual Field Trip, Ford’s Theatre offers an array of resources for use by educators and students any time. These tools are designed to engage students in historical thinking and to expand their understanding of the assassination beyond the single instant to include the evolution of Lincoln’s legacy and the meaning of the assassination for the people of the United States and beyond.
Among these tools is Remembering Lincoln, perfect for older middle and high school students engaging with primary source material. This new digital collection, set to launch March 18, 2015, brings together primary sources that chronicle individual and institutional responses to the assassination—recorded in letters, commemorative objects, newspaper articles and diaries, among others—from around the United States and the globe.Meant for use not just during, but also well after, the sesquicentennial, this website will allow users to curate their own collections for research and learning purposes. For example, teachers might select responses from their state or region to localize this national event.Further, Remembering Lincoln will provide educators with teacher-crafted classroom modules, addressing a variety of topics suitable for a range of skill and grade levels. Created with scholar and teacher input, Remembering Lincoln will be a reliable and engaging resource for those interested in glimpsing people’s emotions in the aftermath of the first presidential assassination.
Ford’s Theatre has worked with a variety of local and state historical organizations to procure primary sources for Remembering Lincoln. This Alabama Beacon newspaper article (above) from the Alabama Department of Archives and History provides an exceptional example of a primary source that an educator can use in the classroom. The headline begins, “Glorious News. Lincoln and Seward Assassinated,” immediately showing a bias. Published on April 21, 1865—12 days after Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant and six days after Lincoln’s death—the article relays erroneous accounts of these major events from questionable sources. It passes on a letter from a telegraph operator in Demopolis, Alabama, passing on news received from another operator in Meridian, Mississippi. The Meridian operator’s news was gleaned from newspapers in Memphis, Tennessee, stating that not only President Lincoln but Secretary of State William Seward had died (Seward survived the attack upon him, though many papers initially made this error). More egregiously, though, the Meridian operator relayed news that Lee had defeated Grant—news he learned from a man passing through his town. A primary source like this raises provocative questions for twenty-first century students living in a world of multitudinous sources of questionable information and “click bait” headlines.
Students might consider these questions:
- If this article were on their Facebook timelines, would they click it?
- Is the title intriguing enough to prompt reading the whole article?
- Does the article approach “TL;DR” (too long; didn’t read) length?
- Where did the information come from? Knowing what we know now about the validity of the information, what does this say about the sources?
- Do you trust what you read on Twitter? In a newspaper? What sources of information can you trust?
- What can 140 characters tweeted from a generally biased account tell you? How do your students detect bias?
- What do “This is said to be true” and “It is believed” imply? Was the writer signaling that the sources may not be reliable?
- Does this sound more like fact or a rumor heard in the hallway, or on your Facebook timeline? Why?
- How new are the ideas behind these questions? Is the spread of misinformation simply a product of the Internet and mass communication?
These questions provoke ideas that connect contemporary issues to those of the past. Beyond creating entry points for learners, these questions show how the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln provoked diverse responses throughout the world. That moment still affected people, whether they were in Ford’s Theatre or thousands of miles away. By utilizing these tools for digital engagement, Ford’s Theatre is bringing authenticity, primary sources and big ideas spurred by this moment in American history into your classroom, no matter where you may be.