Thursday, February 12, 2009

Honest Abe Turns 200

City celebrates Lincoln bicentennial

By Joseph Kellard

As several new books on Abraham Lincoln appear at book stores and libraries and as the media highlight the 200th birthday of the 16th president, Long Beach residents will help commemorate the historical milestone.

The Long Beach Library booked actor David Houston for Presidents’ Day on Monday, when he will don a stovepipe hat and read from Lincoln’s letters, essays and speeches. Reading with radio-style drama and musical accompaniment, Houston will focus on Lincoln’s wit and draw parallels between his era and today.

Houston, who has performed 20 different shows spotlighting a variety of historical figures, describes this production as “lighthearted,” avoiding mention of slavery or the Civil War. While studying for the part, Houston said, he found Lincoln to be “very human.”

“He admitted mistakes,” the actor said, “and he had a reputation for being almost a stand-up comedian, as being the funniest of all the politicians of his day.”

Throughout the month, the library will display its entire collection of books on Lincoln, which includes some 90 biographies and histories published in the past 24 months alone. “It’s like trying to choose between A and A,” library Director George Trepp said about the many new titles.

The parallels some have drawn between President Obama, a former Illinois senator, and Lincoln have served to further spotlight Lincoln, who is already the subject of some 16,000 books, according to Frank Williams, chairman of the Lincoln Forum, a national assembly of Lincoln and Civil War devotees.

Myrnissa Stone, director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center, said she wanted to bring a historian to the center on Presidents’ Day to speak on the similarities and contrasts between the Civil War era and the present.

Long Beach historian Roberta Fiore said she knows of no connections between Lincoln and Long Beach, which during the Civil War was part of Queens County, as was the present-day Town of Hempstead, which sent many soldiers into battle, Fiore said. “After Lincoln was assassinated, Mary Todd Lincoln did visit the famous Hog Island Hotel in Rockaway Beach,” Fiore noted.

The Rev. Tom Donohoe, pastor of St. Mary of the Isle Church on East Walnut Street for 27 years, said he often visits Civil War battlefields. His most recent trips, last fall, were to Antietam and Gettysburg.

“Lincoln is important because he got us through a war that divided the nation, and saved our country,” Donohoe said. “We tend to forget now our founding fathers like Washington, as well as Lincoln. It’s important to take days to remember them.”

The city’s elementary schools will touch on Lincoln through biographies some students have written, and read Lincoln-related poems and riddles, and a few teachers who stress character education will underscore his honesty, hard work and perseverance, the district’s director of social studies, Sean Hurley, said. He added that high school teachers would likely take a day or two this week to revisit Lincoln’s role in and views on the important issues of his day — slavery and emancipation — and discuss links between Lincoln and Obama.

The district’s social studies curriculum, Hurley explained, takes a neutral approach toward historical figures. “You present the facts: We had a division in the country, and it was based on this issue of slavery and race and the economic issues tied to that,” he said.

“It’s easy to sit back now and look at it from a 21st century perspective, but try and put yourself in his shoes, and do you think you could have made the same difficult decisions?”

At Long Beach Catholic School, Marie Palmieri, a seventh- and eighth-grade social studies teacher, said she constantly stresses the presidents when teaching American history — and Honest Abe is her favorite. “He was honest, and I highlight his success story: He was born into nothing, so how did he get to be president?” Palmieri said.

“He worked hard and was able to see how valuable education was. He was passionate about education, which made him extremely unusual in his time, especially coming from a rural environment.”

Palmieri said she most admires Lincoln’s integrity when it came to saving the Union and abolishing slavery. “He wouldn’t fall away from our core values,” she said, “that all people are created equal.”

Jennifer Fleischner, an English professor at Adelphi University and the author of “Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly,” said today’s scholars generally view Lincoln as a complex man who lifted himself from poverty and a limited education, and focus on his views on race and slavery. “Lincoln was always against slavery, but he was not an advocate early on of abolition or equal rights for African-Americans ...” Fleischner said from her car on Tuesday, as she drove to Washington, D.C., to attend Lincoln bicentennial ceremonies. “... But what’s important to recognize about Lincoln was the difference between him and practically everyone around him, which was that he was capable of being educated and growing.”