Filed under: At the Center
When Abraham Lincoln was a young man, he feared he would not achieve anything that he would be remembered for. Today, the 16th American President tops the list of most influential and honored citizens of our time. Lincoln is commemorated in music, poetry and sculpture. Cities, highways and schools bearing his name are endless. His words are quoted by poets and politicians, and his face appears on stamps, coins, mountains and currency.
Abraham Lincoln turns 200 years old this year, so indeed, the occasion called for a grand celebration. Miami was one of just 11 cities chosen by the congressionally-established Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission for a national series of events celebrating the life and achievements of our most revered President. The Adrienne Arsht Center and the local Lincoln Bicentennial Committee, along with the generous support of the John S. James L. Knight Foundation joined forces to make it an affair to remember in our community.
“We are delighted to bring the celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s life and legacy to Miami, a city that embraces and celebrates its cultural and ethnic diversity perhaps more than any other American city,” said Eileen Mackevich, executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. “It’s fitting that we gather in Miami to talk about his life and about the American Dream. In so many ways, Abraham Lincoln exemplified that dream and, during his life, worked tirelessly to make the American Dream a worthy and attainable pursuit for generations to come.”
The festivities celebrated in our community throughout past months included a Chautauqua-style conversation at Coral Gables Congressional Church, where national-scholar actors held a discussion dressed as Lincoln and Frederick Douglas, the well-renowned civil-war era activist. There is also an exhibit open through January 24 at The Historical Museum of Southern Florida, including artifacts and court records – among many other things – exploring South Florida and its history of African Americans.
The grand finale of the Lincoln Bicentennial Celebration took place on November 1st at the Adrienne Arsht Center in the John S. and James L. Knight Concert Hall. The event was called “A Lincoln Town Hall: Lincoln, Miami and the American Dream,” and over a thousand excited South Florida residents showed up for the festivities. “This has been a remarkable event on behalf of the lessons of a remarkable man’s life,” said David Lawrence Jr., who chaired the organizing committee and was the driving force behind this event. “It speaks so well to Miami that we had the largest crowd — almost double the size — of any other of the cities hosting Lincoln bicentennial events.”
When attendees first entered the Knight Concert Hall, they were met with a display of Lincoln memorabilia from Miami citizen Norman Braman’s collection, including a portrait of Lincoln taken by Mathew Brady, a well-known Civil War era photographer; a clipping from the Hartford Evening Press announcing Lincoln’s assassination in 1865; and a playbill for “Our American Cousin,” the comedic play Lincoln was attending the night of his assassination.
The night began with orchestral and choral performances by the New World School of the Arts’ Wind Ensemble conducted by Lee Michael Morrison and the Florida Memorial University Ambassador Chorale directed by Mel White featuring music from Lincoln’s era, including “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, which received the first of several standing ovations throughout the night.
Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., author of Lincoln on Race and Slavery, delivered a keynote address on Lincoln’s lessons for Miami. Dr. Gates, who is also director of the W.E.B Du Bois Institute for African and African American Studies at Harvard University, spoke of Lincoln’s morality, and the struggles he faced with his own beliefs on equality and discrimination. Eventually, Lincoln would be on the forefront of abolishing slavery.
Lincoln was born in 1809 in Kentucky in a tiny log cabin. The family moved to Indiana where he was raised. In Illinois, Lincoln became a frontier lawyer, served as a state legislator and won election to the Presidency at a time when the nation’s very survival was at risk. Inaugurated in 1861, he served throughout the Civil War, working to break the grip of slavery and to put the country back together until an assassin, John Wilkes Booth, brought him down. He felt his most enduring achievement was the Emancipation Proclamation, which helped free thousands of slaves.
Following Dr. Gates address was a panel discussion, as well as a question and answer session with audience members, moderated by CBS Channel 4 Anchorman Antonio Mora. The panel included: Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez, Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, Florida Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Author and former FIU professor Dr. Marvin Dunn, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation President Alberto Ibargüen, Florida Immigrant and Advocacy Center Executive Director Cheryl Little, Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center Executive Director Gepsie Metellus, Florida International University American history professor Dr. Darden Pyron and Dade Community Foundation retired President Ruth Shack.
During the discussion, one audience member asked how Lincoln would handle current economic issues in Miami-Dade County, specifically budget cuts. Alvarez said the county was in fact facing difficult times; however, he said the fearless Lincoln would have tackled the issues head on. Another audience member asked how Lincoln would deal with children in foster care in our communities. Carvalho said more focus would have to be put on those children while they are in the crucial ages of Kindergarten through 3rd grade. Alvarez topped it off by urging attendees to get involved by contacting their State Representatives and voicing their opinions.
The Lincoln Town Hall ended with an emotional performance of Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait,” by the orchestra with narration by philanthropist and Former Miami Heat star Alonzo Mourning to which the crowd gave an overwhelming standing ovation.
The Lincoln Town Hall was followed by a reception at the Freedom Tower, where guests were treated to featured music from the Lincoln-era, as well as hors d’oeuvres and refreshments inspired by Lincoln White House menus. Lincoln artifacts on loan from the Henry Ford Museum were also on display, including a bronze cast of Lincoln’s hand and memorabilia related to the 1860 presidential election.
Alvarez said that if Lincoln visited Miami-Dade County today, he would be proud to see his legacy of equality among people is alive and well.
“In Miami-Dade County, we find genuine strength in our diversity and our rich cultural heritage. It’s what sets this community apart from any other I know,” he said. “But merely embracing our differences is not enough. We always need to find ways to strengthen communities by bringing people from diverse backgrounds closer together. Tonight’s event accomplished that.”
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