The Courage to Confront Our Past: the 2016 Lincoln Ideas Forum
Over 150 years after Abraham Lincoln’s final visit to the Soldiers’ Home, President Lincoln’s Cottage remains a home for brave ideas not only because of what the 16th President accomplished within these very walls, but because of the conversations that happen here each day between our visitors and staff.
On April 13, 2016 – the 151st anniversary of Lincoln’s last ride to the Cottage – we hosted the second annual Lincoln Ideas Forum. The Forum brought experts, scholars, and the public together to explore the intersection of Lincoln’s life and legacy with contemporary issues.
The 2016 Ideas Forum featured these accomplished men and women discussing a range of topics:
- Ted Maris-Wolf, Vice President of Education, Research, and Historical Interpretation,
Colonial Williamsburg Foundation–Moderator
- Katherine Chon, Director of the Office on Trafficking in Persons, Administration for
Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services–Trafficking and Migration
- Richard Vedder, Distinguished Professor of Economics Emeritus, Ohio University–Lincoln’s Economic Legacy
- Olivia Dreier, Executive Director, Karuna Center for Peacebuilding–Bridging Divides after Civil War
- Katie Mansfield, Director, Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and
Peacebuilding Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience Program and Raymond
Zeigler, MA student, Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding–How are we facing the legacy of slavery?
A common theme throughout the presentations, underscored by moderator Maris-Wolf in the audience reflection, was the idea of reconstructing the United States following the Civil War.
Vedder’s presentation on the economic legacy of Lincoln reminds us of the far-reaching vision Americans had for their country even amidst the terrible war. Indeed, the five measures Vedder cited in his presentation (the Homestead Act, the Bank Act of 1863, the Pacific Railroad Act, the Morrill Act, and the Emancipation Proclamation) would not have happened without the Civil War and demonstrated some of the positive growth experienced as a result of the Civil War’s trauma. Vedder declared that the Emancipation Proclamation added to this economic legacy by helping to eradicate slavery, “the biggest example of income inequality” in American history.
Chon relayed how the Department of Health and Human Services in its current handling of migrants and human trafficking victims is increasingly looking back on the experience – positive and negative – of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands after the Civil War. Chon noted that “today we are dealing with that same question.… how do we help them transition into lives of social and economic equity and sustainability?” In aiding victims of slavery, Chon believed that the political will of the public, not just the letter of the law, would determine how much progress would be made and sustained.
Raymond Zeigler reading a passage from “The New Jim Crow”
Mansfield and Zeigler presented the historical, traumatic experience of African Americans in the United States. Personalizing the trauma, Zeigler presented his own story of three decades of imprisonment followed by a struggle against the stigma of being a felon. Zeigler described the pain he and others face from the unrelenting stigma of having been incarcerated as “being on fire.”
“Even with a Villanova degree, I’m on fire. Even working for the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania receiving certification as a certified peer specialist [and] certified forensic specialist, I’m on fire. The same places that let me do internship working side-by-side with city employees…guess what? They would not hire me [as an employee], I’m on fire.” Finally, Zeigler pleaded, “Dammit, somebody help me put this fire out.”
It takes the courage to confront our past
Dreier’s exposition on reconciliation and peacebuilding tethered all the presentations together. Dreier directly linked back to Vedder’s presentation noting that President Lincoln was simultaneously trying to end America’s civil conflict while also laying the groundwork for the reconstruction and growth of the country. She then presented on her own work in Bosnia, Sri Lanka, and Rwanda helping these nations overcome the hate and pain of their own civil wars and genocide.
In her conclusion, Dreier challenged the audience to reflect on what Americans needed to do to finally accomplish a true reconciliation of our own civil war and to heal the historical and contemporary wounds of racism and discrimination.
Below is an extended excerpt of Dreier’s presentation which drew no concrete conclusions, but instead posited many questions as a call to action and reflection:
This kind of reconciliation is possible. It takes the courage to confront our past and to really be willing to understand with compassion those who we’ve thought of as our enemies; to understand their fears, they’re concerns. To be able to walk in their shoes. And that is a very, very challenging process that takes time and that individual acts can matter hugely.
If the Rwandans can do this after genocide; if Sri Lankans can do it after 27 years of civil war; if Faheedan can do it after losing 60 family members, what is it that we can do to address our legacies of violence and that which still divides us from those legacies?
What is the challenge, and what is the opportunity, of the Black Lives Matter Movement? What does it mean if we just let it die down and simmer away? And all those tensions go back underneath?
What is still in the DNA in the South from the humiliation of defeat? How does that continue to live on?
What is the legacy from the massacres and forced marches of Native Americans?
And what new divisions are we creating in our incredibly polarized political discourse? What will it mean to really live in to the perspective of someone with whom you totally disagree politically? To try to understand the world from their point of view and the experience that shaped that perspective?
And what new divisions are we creating between the so-called Western World and the so-called Islamic World? And what divisions are being fostered here at home between American Muslims and non-Muslims?
As we continue pondering Lincoln’s legacy, Dreier’s questions force us to consider how we will confront our past and build our future. Given the ongoing sesquicentennial of Reconstruction, social movements like Black Lives Matter, and political events such as the 2016 presidential election, there is a tremendous amount of past and current events for all of us to ponder. As a home for brave ideas, President Lincoln’s Cottage embraces the challenge and opportunity of confronting these issues with our visitors. Openly discussing trauma may be hard, but it is the only way for us to truly reconcile and heal the historical wounds and contemporary pain festering from Lincoln’s era and our own.
Presenters at the 2016 Lincoln Ideas Forum (L to R): Callie Hawkins, Richard Vedder, Katie Mansfield, Raymond Zeigler, Olivia Dreier, Erin Carlson Mast, and Ted Maris-Wolf
Transcriptions of the event will be made available. Visit our website and @LincolnsCottage on Facebook and Twitter for the latest update on its release.