• Ryan Smith
  • Reenactors in period garb gathered in Springfield for the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s funeral.

Clad in a blue wool Civil War-era military outfit, an actor playing Major General Joseph Hooker wrapped up a stately reenactment of Abraham Lincoln’s burial on Sunday in Springfield with a famous line from former secretary of war Edwin Stanton: “Now he belongs to the ages.”

But that was exactly the problem with the weekend’s elaborately staged festivities, which celebrated the 150th anniversary of the funeral of the Great Emancipator—almost no one wanted to acknowledge the present. In a week in which Baltimore continued to rally and riot for racial justice and Black Lives Matter protests were held all over the country, no one connected the dots between the difficult issues Lincoln took on in the 1860s and the current racial tension dividing America.

The few acknowledgments of anything that has happened post-1865 came during a ceremony Saturday morning when pallbearers and ranks of Union soldiers in period garb escorted a replica of the hearse carrying Lincoln’s casket from a decorative train to downtown Springfield’s Union Square Park, where dignitaries took turns speaking on a temporary stage. Governor Bruce Rauner stuck to drab generalities: calling Abe “the greatest Illinoisan” who “set us on the path to become the greatest country in the world.” Paolo Rondelli, an ambassador from San Marino to the U.S., presented Rauner with a ceremonial coin his small southern-European country minted for some reason. The silvery trinket was engraved with Lincoln’s and Obama’s faces side by side. “The connections are never ending” between the 16th and 44th presidents, we were told—but not why.

  • Ryan Smith
  • Pallbearers carry “Lincoln’s casket.”

In the keynote address, Lincoln historian Michael Burlingame asserted that Lincoln was just as much of a champion of racial equality as Martin Luther King Jr., calling him a “martyr to black civil rights.” He backed it up with a quote from a eulogy by Frederick Douglass that claimed that Lincoln “was emphatically the black man’s president: the first to show any respect to their rights as men.”

Burlingame’s speech was compelling but felt hollow as I stopped to look at the faces of the several thousand spectators gathered in the shadow of Springfield’s Old State Capitol to celebrate “the black man’s president.” Minus a few dressed-up actors playing former slaves turned freemen, about the only faces of people of color I saw were members of Springfield’s homeless population.

But if the speakers and politicians seemed intent on keeping Lincoln at a psychic distance, so did the crowds that came to consume the festivities. While actors wearing formal black suits and hoop dresses—meant to represent some of the 150,000 mourners who flocked to Springfield in 1865—looked on Lincoln’s casket with expressions of studied somberness, their 2015 equivalents gawked at them through smartphones and digital cameras, snapping pictures while eating snow cones from a nearby stand with flavors like Gettysburg Grape and Banana Republican.

Selfie sticks might be a strange thing to bring to a presidential funeral, but it’s hard to blame people for Instagramming an event designed like dinner theater. To be fair, there were times I was personally stirred at the retro sights and sounds of the event. I’m a Springfield native who has never shaken the brainwashing that comes with growing up in the self-proclaimed Land of Lincoln. So, I felt a sense of awe at the death knell ringing from the bells of First Presbyterian Church—the church that still keeps an old pew where the Lincoln family once sat on Sundays—and fought off a tear as an actor wearing a top hat recited Lincoln’s oft-quoted second inaugural address as a coffin representing Lincoln’s sat nearby.

Still, I felt uncomfortable following the procession march through Springfield’s racially segregated neighborhoods to Lincoln’s Tomb at Oak Ridge Cemetery. Once grand Victorian houses in a neighborhood named after Abe (Lincoln Park) remain in various stages of disrepair after Springfield’s upper and middle classes abandoned the area decades ago for the moneyed far-west side and suburbs. The area surrounding downtown is now inhabited by the desperate working poor. As some of them came out to stare at actors dressed in fancy linens riding horse-drawn carriages that rattled on the dilapidated streets, I was embarrassed for the spectacle.

Lincoln’s emancipation of slaves was great, but it was far from a race-relations cure-all, especially in Abe’s hometown. The funeral procession on Sunday cut through places that once burned during the race riot of 1908, in which a mob of five to ten thousand whites set fire to houses and business owned by black residents until the militia was brought in to restore order. It was a horrific event that prompted the creation of the civil rights organization NAACP.

Instead of acknowledging the checkered past and present in the century and a half since Lincoln’s tragic assassination, the anniversary commemoration kept its pedant’s eye on recreating the visuals of what Lincoln’s burial must have looked like on May 5, 1865—essentially throwing dirt on his modern relevance.