It’s the little things.
Reflecting on two summers spent in intensive, content-rich professional development through Ford’s Theatre—as a Civil War Washington
Teacher Fellow in 2014 and as a Seat of War and Peace scholar in 2015—the biggest impact on my teaching has been getting to know the ordinary: the everyday objects, spaces and moments that made the Civil War era extraordinary.
Now this may seem a strange takeaway, since it was at Ford’s Theatre where the biggest of all big things—the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, five days after Lee’s surrender to Grant—took place. Naturally, I learned a lot about that tragic event through my work there.
But really, what will forever influence my teaching was getting a window into the frailty, complexity and humanity of two of the era’s titans, Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. And, as part of that discovery, I better understood Washington, D. C.’s role in the Civil War as a place where everyday people struggled for normalcy as they endured unspeakable personal and national loss.
Over the course of my summer experiences, I had a chance not only to reflect on the long shadow cast by the President’s assassination, but to gather glimpses of a more private Lincoln that showed his human limitations.
A Tragic Family Legacy
At Ford’s Theatre, I was moved by a museum exhibit of Lincoln’s family (which you can see here). Draped in black, the images powerfully conveyed the utter grief Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln experienced upon the death of their young son, Willie. I felt the devastating ordinariness of Lincoln’s last moments with Mary, his wife, and thought of them as husband and wife, as parents.
Lincoln the Everyday Man
At President Lincoln’s Cottage, I learned of a moment when, in response to a grieving visitor with a request, an exasperated, weary Lincoln snapped, “Am I to get no rest?” then, wracked by guilt, followed up the next day.
I stood near the desk at the Cottage where Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation and looked out the window, wondering if that “Great Emancipator” had the same view I did.
I saw Lincoln’s slippers on display (in a temporary exhibition), imagining how his legendarily-long feet probably needed relief on days when he had seen and heard too much.
Frederick Douglass’s Life Journey
Just a few miles away, I contemplated how Cedar Hill, Frederick Douglass’s final residence, represented his ascendancy from slavery.
I gazed into Douglass’s bedroom and saw his barbells—an artifact that spoke not only to his physical strength but also his psychological determination and intellectual prowess.
A steamer trunk that proudly bore his taken name, F. Douglass, spoke to his life’s journey, miles and worlds away from the Frederick Bailey who had escaped slavery by train decades before.
In a display case, I saw the walking stick Mary Lincoln sent to Douglass after her husband’s death, a reminder of how these two men’s lives, intertwined—sometimes at odds, sometimes aligned—profoundly influenced the course of history.
And, as I stood outside Douglass’s home, perched on a hill, I tried to imagine what the “Lion of Anacostia” thought as he looked down upon the Capitol in the post-Reconstruction era.
Thinking about Memory
In my classroom, I am frequently trying to help my students see that differences exist between historical memory and historical evidence. My work with Ford’s Theatre has given me added insight to tackle those abstract conversations with young learners.
In The Seat of War and Peace, we examined primary sources to discuss how grief and despair about Lincoln’s assassination was as not widespread as many imagine and how shock coexisted alongside everyday life in ways reminiscent of ours after 9/11.
We read Douglass’s speeches to learn how his memory of Lincoln was inextricably woven into the racial context and political reality of the post-Reconstruction era.
Tying Together the Learning
Too often, students limit themselves by thinking of historic figures like Lincoln and Douglass as otherworldly, exotic creatures—very unlike anyone they know, in times very different than theirs today. The fashion choices and facial hairs of yesteryear admittedly don’t help!
But as a middle school history teacher, I believe it is important that my students find the ordinariness, the humanity, in the people we
study. And though I may not devote an entire lesson to Lincoln’s slippers, nor Douglass’s barbells, it is these glimpses of the ordinary that influence my teaching every day.
Because in the end, my students don’t need to be convinced that Lincoln and Douglass were once important men in an important city. They already know that.
Rather, I want them to see that—human flaws, limitations and all—these were individuals who struggled to do right in their time on earth. For it is in their everyday lives that their legacies can powerfully and purposefully influence our own.
Mary Beth Donnelly teaches U. S. History, Civics, and Economics at Swanson Middle School in Arlington, Virginia.