“A Direct Appeal”: Letters to Lincoln from African Americans
Between the time Lincoln was elected and took office, he received approximately 8,000 letters. Throughout his administration he continued to receive about 1,700 letters a month, many of them from African Americans. This outpouring of communication demonstrates a feeling of connectedness with Lincoln but, more importantly, that Black men and women in the United States wanted a say in how they were governed.
Through analyzing their correspondence, students can learn more about what was on the minds and hearts of African Americans during Lincoln’s presidency. Whether in full support or intense opposition to Lincoln’s views or legislation, this collection of letters demonstrates the autonomy claimed by Black people in exercising their right to appeal directly to the president across a variety of topics. Beyond colonization, equal pay, and expressions of admiration, Lincoln received letters asking for legal advice and assistance, seeking appointment to various political offices, and above all, deafening calls for equality and justice.
Lincoln was unable to answer every letter he received, but the sheer volume that arrived in Washington, D.C. demonstrates that African American people of the 19th century were acutely aware of politics and the systemic mechanisms that held them back, whether enslaved or free. Whatever their purpose for writing was, these letters represent a significant thread in the fabric of our history. Many letters received by the White House found their way to the National Archives, a national repository that holds an immense catalog of historical records related to the innerworkings of our government. Those who wrote the President found their voices preserved in time in the same facility that holds the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. The presence of these letters documents the agency of Black Americans and demonstrates their right to bend the ear of the president and make a direct appeal.
The letters in this teaching guide demonstrate the self-advocacy Black individuals exercised through addressing their commander-in-chief. To help students understand the topics received by the Lincoln administration, they have been organized into three themes: colonization, equal pay, and admiration. While textbooks may present Lincoln as a strong advocate for African Americans, his decisions were not always met with approval. Within these letters students will encounter multiple perspectives that challenge the belief of a singular African American experience.
Before and during the Civil War, some groups of enslavers and abolitionists supported the idea of colonization or sending freed enslaved peoples to countries in the Caribbean, Central America, and Africa, removing them from the United States. President Lincoln often expressed support of colonization, even though sentiment in the United States was divided on its merits. Those in favor included enslavers, abolitionists, and even some African Americans. Those who opposed colonization viewed it as forced deportation from their families, homes, and communities.
Below are two letters to Lincoln about colonization. The first letter is written by John B. Hepburn, a Black man who emigrated to Haiti. The second letter is penned by George B. Vashon who lived in Haiti for a brief period and served as the President of Avery College, a solicitor for the Freedmen’s Bureau, and a professor at Howard University.
As you read these letters, ask yourself the following:
- What reasons does each give for supporting or opposing colonization?
- What inferences might you make about the authors of the letters based on what they said?
- What is the overall tone of each letter and how do you think it was received?
In 1863, the Union Army began to allow Black men to enlist to fight in the Civil War. Many self-emancipated and free Black people eagerly accepted the opportunity to fight for the freedom of all enslaved peoples. To entice Black men to enlist, a $13 a month salary was promised--a salary that matched the income of white soldiers. The War Department, however, decided that Black soldiers should receive $7 a month in cash and three dollars’ worth of clothing. The pay discrepancy of $13 (without a clothing deduction) versus $7 outraged and demotivated Black troops, who eventually participated in both violent and nonviolent protests. Equal pay for equal work was promised but not delivered.
This decision affected both the soldiers and their families who awaited and relied on money sent from the front lines. Black mothers and children faced racialized poverty, unable to afford housing, clothing, or food. Further, many Black soldiers’ debts caused by structural racism went unpaid, creating greater economic disparity between Black and White soldiers.
The following letters, penned by Mary Ann Vincent, a mother of two and wife of Amos Vincent, a young farmer enlisted in the Twentieth U.S. Colored Infantry, and John H. Harris, a soldier in the fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment, Co. A., describe the lived experience of pay disparities.
As you review the letters, consider the following:
- What does each writer request in their correspondence?
- How does the pay inequality affect both the soldiers in the field and their families?
- How does each author describe their experience?
Lincoln dealt with controversy throughout his presidency, and public perceptions of his success evolved over time. To be sure, his popularity among African American individuals was anything but unanimous. While historical narratives often describe Lincoln as “The Great Emancipator,” this is an oversimplification of the complex relationship between African Americans and their Commander-in-Chief.
While he was not unanimously loved, Lincoln received many letters of encouragement and well-wishes from Black individuals. Although he could not answer all the letters he received, several letters were discovered in his personal collection, among them messages from supporters that one might assume moved the president or made an impression.
In this final collection are two items Lincoln received before his assassination in 1865. The first is a poem written by Hannibal Cox, a formerly enslaved Black man. The poem is a combination of original text and phrases borrowed from a publication in Harper’s Weekly. The second letter was sent by Mrs. L. Fowler, a teacher. The contents of the letter were dictated to her by George Washington, a formerly enslaved Black man. In his letter, Washington describes a dream about Lincoln that left an immense impression on him.
As you read the following letters, consider the following:
- Why do you think Cox chose to capture his feelings in poetry?
- Why did Washington choose to share his dream with Lincoln?
- What can you conclude about Lincoln’s choice to keep these letters?
Ask students to write a letter to the President of the United States sharing their thoughts on a policy decision or advocating for a cause important to them.
Be sure to share the White House’s instructions to “Send a letter to the White House” before they start. After they write their letters, have students exchange drafts for review and edits before writing and sending a final version.
After students send their letters, have them reflect on the process of addressing the President and what they learned from the experience.
The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum wishes to thank author and historian Dr. Jonathan White for sharing his resources and his thoughtful assistance and counsel as we completed this teaching guide. White’s tireless research and passion for documenting Lincoln’s relationships with African Americans proved invaluable to our work and we are sincerely grateful for his help.
White, J. W. (2021). To address you as my friend: African Americans’ letters to Abraham Lincoln. The University of North Carolina Press.
Holland, J. J. (2016). The invisibles: The untold story of African American slaves in the White House. Lyons Press.
Lusane, C. (2011). The Black history of the White House. City Lights Publishers.
Miller, A. (2017). The President’s kitchen cabinet: The story of the African Americans who have fed our first families, from the Washingtons to the Obamas. The University of North Carolina Press.
Pinheiro, H. A., Jr. (2022). The families’ Civil War: Black soldiers and the fight for racial justice. University of Georgia Press.
Ryan, A. (2015). The presidency in Black and White: My up-close view of three presidents and race in America. Rowman & Littlefield.
Washington, J. E. (2018). They knew Lincoln. (K. Masur, Ed.). Oxford University Press.
Watts, J. (2020). The Black Cabinet: The untold story of African Americans and politics during the age of Roosevelt. Grove Press.
White, J. W. (2022). A house built by slaves: African American visitors to the Lincoln White House. Rowman & Littlefield.