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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, April 14, 2024

Civil War history freed from page

Today could be the day you meet Abraham Lincoln.

At the grand opening of Tisch's "Forever Free" exhibit tonight at 6 p.m., you could even say hello to and shake the hand of the stovepipe-hatted gentleman. Well, maybe not the stovepipe-hatted gentleman, but someone who closely resembles the 16th president (the 6'10" local historian and Lincoln impersonator George Cheevers).

His appearance will be just a sideshow at the national traveling exhibition, "Forever Free: Abraham Lincoln's Journey to Emancipation," which opened at Tisch on Wednesday. The exhibit itself consists of three multi-paneled displays, spread out to allow for uncrowded viewing.

In a corner, one can examine a remarkable binder of photocopied documents with a Union soldier's hymn book ("For right is right, since God is God, and right the day must win; to doubt would be disloyalty, to falter would be a sin") and a slave sale receipt ("one thousand and twenty five Dollars, being in full for the purchase of one Negro slave named Sam").

This section strives to give voices to the many sides present during this tumultuous time in American history, from the black soldiers to Lincoln's opponents. The political cartoons are fascinating: keep an eye out for one depicting Honest Abe as an irritated Satan. Another panel features vitriolic propaganda published by the Democrats during the 1864 presidential election. Calling the then-president "Abraham Africanus the First," the tract asked, "What is the Constitution? A compact with hell - now obsolete."

The panels are designed with aesthetics in mind and an emphasis on imagery. The panels whet one's taste for the time period and make a trip to the E457 section (where Lincoln books are stored) on the first floor of Tisch very desirable.

To fully appreciate the exhibit requires about an hour, but the experience of the exhibit does not end when your examination of the panels is complete. This is an exhibition that moves beyond the stagnant two-dimensional to breathe and rejoice in the idea of living history. The simple act of unfolding one of the program pamphlets opens a nearly overwhelming number of opportunities. The events of "Forever Free" span lectures, speeches, workshops, re-enactments, film series and concerts (including one that may prominently feature President Bacow). During the next six weeks, the campus will host school groups on field trips from third graders through high-schoolers.

Stephanie St. Laurence, Tisch co-coordinator of "Forever Free," said people heard of the project through word of mouth, and came from every corner of Massachusetts to get involved.

The Medford Historical Society worked closely with Tisch coordinators by contributing financially and enhancing the collection.

The coordinators have been so involved with planning the exhibition for the past three years that they are not quite sure what to do now that it is finally open. "It's a little like graduating," said St. Laurence with a sigh.

St. Laurence was then momentarily distracted by a gentleman with a strange question: how many four-legged animals, such as horses and mules, were killed during the Civil War? Check the display on "Animals in the Civil War" at the veterinary school campus in Grafton, St. Laurence said.

This is just a hint of the wealth of information and culture, available these next six weeks from Tisch, the heavily-involved academic departments and the extremely responsive community.

The past does not have to be facts on a page, memorized, subjected to exams, and finally relegated to apathy. This exhibit shows the power of living history.

Before leaving, be absolutely sure to stand in front of the glass display case on one side of the Tisch lobby. In the center of the case, you will find the actual broadside advertisement that was hanging in Ford's Theatre on April 14, 1865, the night Lincoln was shot. It was retrieved by Edwin Adams, the performer booked at the theater for the week after - who was also a Medford native. What goes around comes around, and Lincoln has finally come to Tufts.