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Lincoln, Ford’s Theatre, Washington, D.C.

Every July I think of President Abraham Lincoln. His concept of liberty for all and his steadfastness during the Civil War resonate for me on America’s Independence Day. A better understanding of Lincoln’s legacy as well as the aftermath of his assassination is the goal of the Ford’s Center for Education and Leadership, Washington, D.C, a $25 million facility that opened in February 2012.

However, start your tour of the Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site’s three building campus—Ford’s Theatre, the Center and Petersen House, where Lincoln died--, at the museum in the lower level of the theater. The museum’s exhibits detail Lincoln’s presidency from his arrival in Washington, D.C. to his fateful attendance of Our American Cousin, on the evening of April 14, 1865.

Against a sepia colored blowup of the capital before the Civil War, video screens show black and white images of Lincoln’s inauguration, describing how sharpshooters patrolled the inaugural route for this controversial president in a time of national conflict.

Statues—fun for kids to pose with--represent the office seekers and lobbyists who constantly besieged Lincoln. Quotes from Lincoln’s speeches illustrate the growing tensions. Images of slaves presented with such Lincoln statements as “I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free” combine with Lincoln’s presidential order of war to make the political also seem personal.

Former U.S. presidents Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush read lines from Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, highlighting the speech’s enduring principles and power. The derringer John Wilkes Booth employed to assassinate the president as well as a replica of the coat Lincoln wore to the play add to the drama of the day as do the matched timelines of the movements of both Lincoln and Booth on that fateful April 14.

The 30 minute ranger talk that follows in the theatre adds more details. As a well-known performer who had appeared on Ford’s stage, Booth had no difficulty gaining access to Lincoln’s box. Booth timed his shot to coincide with the play’s biggest laugh, a line in Act III, thus masking the sound of the deadly bullet. The mortally wounded Lincoln was taken to the Petersen House across the street where he died at 7:22 a.m., April 15.

From the Petersen House elevators take you to the Ford’s Center for Education and Leadership where you begin in the Aftermath Gallery, fourth floor. Listen to telegraph messages and read newspaper headlines about the assassination while hearing the hooves of the horses that pulled the wagon carrying Lincoln’s body to the White House. An interactive map traces Booth’s escape route to a Virginia tobacco farm where he was found and shot.

A tower of nearly 7,000 books, metal replicas of some of the 16,000 works about Lincoln, fill the four story atrium, attesting to Lincoln’s impact. In the third floor’s Legacy Gallery as students and ordinary Americans recite a mix of memorable Lincoln lines, a montage of images from America’s struggles—slavery, military cemeteries, Kent State shootings and Vietnam protests—appears, ending with the refrain ‘We Shall Find a Way.”

A video about the Lincoln Memorial emphasizes its importance as “America’s Stage,” a showcase for the expression of Lincoln’s ideas of “unity, freedom and equality.” Watch clips of opera singer Marian Anderson performing in 1939 at the Lincoln Memorial after being barred from D. A. R. Hall because she was African American and hear the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. deliver his “I have a dream” speech.

The second floor’s Leadership Gallery hosts changing exhibits. The current one asks visitors for their views on the qualities needed to be a leader. Although the gallery is a good idea, the execution of the exhibit—post a pink sticky note—is not engaging.

Overall, the new Center does add perspective to Lincoln’s time in Washington and his legacy. To lessen your wait for admission to the Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site’s buildings, obtain timed entry tickets in advance.

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