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Teaching With Documents: The Unfinished Lincoln Memorial

Background

Today a majestic marble likeness of Abraham Lincoln stares across the reflecting pool (photo from Records of the Environmental Protection Agency, Record Group 412, item 412-DA-4090) at the Washington Monument on the capital's grassy mall. This memorial to Lincoln has been the backdrop for many important public protests and events since its completion in 1922. It was on the memorial's steps that singer Marian Anderson gave her Easter Sunday concert in 1939 after being turned away from Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution and where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech in August 1963.

Construction began on the memorial to Lincoln in 1915, fifty years after his assassination. American sculptor Daniel Chester French designed the statue to honor the 16th President. French had gained a national reputation with his earlier portrayal of "The Minute Man," a statue to honor those colonials who died at Lexington and Concord in 1775. In describing his tribute to Lincoln, French said: "The memorial tells you just what manner of man you are come to pay homage to; his simplicity, his grandeur, and his power." President Warren G. Harding dedicated the building and the sculpture on May 30, 1922.

The photograph shown here captures workers assembling French's statue of Lincoln in 1920. It is a haunting reminder of the unfilled promises implicit in Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, for the 1920s saw heightened racial, ethnic, and religious tensions in this country. The causes for increased tensions included fierce competition for jobs among demobilized soldiers, both black and white; the migration of rural blacks to urban centers in the North and the South; and the infusion into the melting pot of immigrants who differed in cultural background from those who had come earlier. One consequence of these tensions was the rise of nativism, or giving first place to "native" Americans; another was the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan (photo from Records of the United States Information Agency, Record Group 306, item 306-NT-650-4) in all its virulence. The headless image of Lincoln is prophetic of the somber aspects of the decade that is most remembered for its flappers, flivvers, and frivolity.

This photograph is from Records of the Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks of the National Capital, Record Group 42, item 42-M-J-1. The photographer is unknown, as is the identity of the central figure in the photograph.

The Documents

Worker in Front of Unfinished Lincoln Memorial
Click to Enlarge

National Archives and Records Administration
Records of the Office of Public Buildings and
Public Parks of the National Capital
Record Group 42

Article Citation

Alexander, Mary. "The Unfinished Lincoln Memorial." Social Education 47, 2 (February 1983): 126-128.

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The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
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