Somehow, just about everything in Springfield, Ill., dovetails back to Abraham Lincoln. But the meandering historic pathways and distinctive cultural aspects that bring about this amalgamation of the past and the present here is what makes it a fascinating tourism destination.
“The great emancipator”
The piès de résistance of the Lincoln experience in Springfield is undoubtedly the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum, with both entities located directly across the street from each other in the center of downtown.
The Presidential Library is primarily used by scholars, genealogists, students and other researchers interested in Lincoln as well as the history of the state of Illinois. It contains an astounding collection of manuscripts, audio-visual technology, newspapers, printed materials and the like, including a genealogy component, programs and exhibits.
The Presidential Museum—the construction of which, according to the entity, “took almost four times as long as the Civil War that defined his presidency”—is where visitors from all over the world come to learn more about the most written about president in our history.
I could have spent hours here exploring the over a dozen galleries and exhibit spaces, each depicting a different facet of his life, before his presidency, during his presidency and after his assassination, as well as that of Mary Todd Lincoln. The sundry temporary, permanent and interactive exhibits are out of this world, encompassing a wide array of personal, family and presidential artifacts, photos, artifacts and memorabilia, just to name a few.
Two of my favorite aspects were the distinctive grand theaters. The state-of-the-art Union Theater features captivating special effects on a layered digital-projection screen in “Lincoln’s Eyes,” while “Ghosts of the Library” delves into the significance of the Presidential Library through a totally unexpected Holavision holographic technology highlighted by impressive and magical special effects. Both are completely different from each other and really give visitors a broad perspective of the wealth and depth of the experience they will enjoy here.
The primary focus of the museum is divided into Lincoln’s life sojourns, “Journey One: The Pre-Presidential Years” and “Journey Two: The White House Years.” The first is composed of nine exhibits that share his life from his birth in Kentucky up through his stint in the White House. The second vividly details the historic yet often brutal realities of what he faced as a father who lost his son, the horrors of the Civil War, the outpouring of both admiration and downright hatred for his various political stances, and ultimately his assassination and the mourning of his death.
Each exhibit area is more fascinating than the last, but, in my opinion, the museum really outdid itself in “Lying in State,” which is a re-creation of the setting when Lincoln lain in state at the Old State Capitol. It is so poignant and gripping that you really feel as if you are walking past and through a mourning processional, complete with a recreation of his coffin, the draperies, lighting and so forth. I hear that people often break down in tears when they get to this exhibit, and I can completely see why.
Much like the movie “Lincoln, ” starring Sally Field and Daniel Day–Lewis, “Mary Todd Lincoln: First Lady of Controversy” in the Illinois Gallery features not only a wealth of her jewelry, clothing, letters, photos and other items, but shows just how influential she was as his wife and in the White House and, interestingly, the softer side of her, seemingly the opposite of the dynamic powerhouse she was in the public eye.
Throughout his political life, Lincoln made numerous speeches against the practice of slavery, including his first in 1837 while serving in the Illinois General Assembly at only the age of 28. His stance and actions on this issue are poignantly demonstrated throughout the museum in numerous exhibits, including “The Slave Auction,” “Lincoln’s Office in the White House,” where he deliberated with his cabinet surrounding the Emancipation Proclamation, and several others.
This is just the beginning of all that visitors will experience here at one of the best presidential museums in the country.
African-american history past and present
The issue of slavery in Lincoln’s day is only part of the history of African-Americans in and around Springfield.
The Springfield and Central Illinois African-American History Museum focuses its efforts on “documenting the community, the culture and the triumphs/tragedies of Springfield African-American life” during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Their current cadre of exhibits encompasses “Black U.S. Marshals, Black Press in Springfield & Illinois,” “Red Tails,” an exhibit honoring the Tuskegee Airmen, and the historic 1908 Race Riot. The museum also offers programs throughout the year such as oral history projects, special events and other presentations. Moreover, efforts by the museum’s founding body were instrumental in the historic registering of the Lincoln Colored Home, the first orphanage for African-American children.
Springfield is one of several U.S. cities where tensions between African-Americans and the majority of the day escalated into great turmoil and violence, experienced here as the 1908 Race Riot. Although the riot only lasted two days, the aftermath was devastating—physically, emotionally and spiritually—to the well-established and prosperous Black community here, which was completely destroyed by a white mob that burned Black businesses and homes in protest over the secret relocation from the town jail of a Black handyman named George Richardson and another Black prisoner for their own protection.
Richardson had been falsely accused by a white woman of rape, and despite his temporary safety, the aftereffects of included the lynching of two Black men, over 70 injuries to both Blacks and whites and, because of the widespread destruction, the fleeing of some 3,000 Black residents from the city.
The incident sent shockwaves across the country, as it was one more slap in the face and testament to the fact that anti-Black sentiment was unfortunately still alive and well—even in the town where the national hero began his anti-slavery campaign that ultimately resulted in the Emancipation Proclamation. However, this historic riot is credited with the founding of the NAACP.
A remembrance of the 1908 Race Riot is poignantly captured outside of the Union Station Visitors Center in Union Square Park downtown. Here, there is a beautiful bronze sculpture depicting numerous scenes and aspects of the riot and its people by world-renowned African-American artist Preston Jackson.
To bring to bear more depth about the riot and its significance here as well as in the U.S., visitors can embark upon a self-guided, eight-marker tour that highlights the riot’s destructive path downtown, including at the State Arsenal, the Old Courthouse, the site of one of the lynchings and other noteworthy sites.
Life goes on
Though not as collectively widespread as it was in its heyday, the African-American community here is still vibrant and thriving. We’ll look more at this in our next visit to Springfield.
Lysa Allman-Baldwin writes for numerous online and print publications, including as the cultural travel writer for www.Examiner.com and as a senior travel writer for SoulOfAmerica.com, an Afrocentric travel website. Lysa can be reached at email@example.com.
1908 Race Riot Sculpture: www.epa.state.il.us/black-history/sculpture.html
1908 Race Riot Self-Guided Tour: http://visit-springfieldillinois.com/Documents/SCVB1908RaceRiotBrochure2012.pdf
Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum: 800-610-2094, 217-782-5764, www.alplm.org
Springfield and Central Illinois African-American History Museum: 217-528-2725, http://spiaahfmuseum.org
Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau: 800-545-3700, http://visit-springfieldillinois.com
Union Station Visitors Center & Park: 217-557-4588, http://visit-springfieldillinois.com/Things-To-Do/Attractions/Details.aspx?id=916