Voting against Lincoln holiday

Councilman disputes honor for Abe in light of Civil War events

February 11, 2000|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Most Americans know what Abraham Lincoln did for the country during the Civil War, but some Baltimoreans remember the 16th president for what he did to Baltimore.

Yet Baltimore will be one of the few cities in the United States to close its local government today to observe Lincoln's birthday.

City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. wants to know why.

Mitchell, a history teacher from West Baltimore, can't understand why Baltimore would continue to honor Lincoln, who imposed martial law on the city and had cannons placed on Federal Hill to enforce it.

Most governments, local, state and federal, long ago merged Lincoln's birthday and George Washington's into one Presidents Day (still officially Washington's Birthday) on the third Monday this month.

Baltimore's 16,000 city workers get Presidents Day off, but they still get a three-day weekend, starting today, in memory of "the Great Emancipator."

City schools and the Enoch Pratt Free Library will be open today, but frustrated residents who haven't seen a trash truck in weeks because of snow will have to wait until next week and won't be able to call a closed City Hall to complain.

That's because city workers, who get 11 holidays a year, have been able to keep Lincoln's birthday through decades of contract negotiations.

"I'm not a history buff," said Gary McLhinney, president of Baltimore's Fraternal Order of Police union. "But Lincoln did do a lot of things."

And that's what angers Mitchell. As a history teacher at Boys' Latin School,Mitchell knows all too well about Lincoln's grip on Baltimore during the Civil War.

Lincoln punished Baltimore after an angry, pro-Southern mob hurled stones at Union troops as they marched through city streets en route to Washington a week after the fall of Fort Sumter, S.C., in April 1861.

The Union soldiers responded by firing their muskets into the crowd. Nine residents and three soldiers died, becoming the first casualties of the four-year Civil War in a riot that stretched a mile along Pratt Street.

Fearing that Baltimore's Southern sympathies would give the Confederates a strategic vantage point to attack the nation's capital, Lincoln sent federal troops to Baltimore and placed the city under martial law for the remainder of the war. Various city officials, including the mayor, were jailed.

Mitchell opposes the city continuing to honor Lincoln. He says he does so not as an African-American but as a second-term member of the City Council.

"We as citizens still celebrate Lincoln's holiday while we as council members most likely would still be locked up in Fort McHenry along with the mayor," Mitchell said this week. "I'm still trying to figure out why we're celebrating it."

So far, he is alone in his protest -- and only one other council member, Melvin L. Stukes, talks of changing city holidays. (Stukes would add Veterans Day.)

Mitchell says that Baltimore is one of the few cities besides Lincoln's hometown of Springfield, Ill., that still observe Lincoln's birthday (actually Feb. 12).

"Even in Illinois, it's eroding," said Illinois State Historian Thomas Schwartz, noting that some schools in the Land of Lincoln no longer close for the day.

Michele Frisbee, spokeswoman for the International City-County Managers Association in Washington, agrees that Baltimore is a rarity in its Lincoln Day shutdown. Most government bodies, including that of Washington, observe Presidents Day, she said.

"That's why it's so odd," Frisbee said of the Baltimore tradition. "Everyone in the Washington metro area follows the federal policy."

This week, Congress passed a bill creating a task force to prepare for the national Lincoln bicentennial in 2009. Among the ideas the panel will study is whether to create a stamp or penny.

Baltimore will likely be way ahead of the rest of the nation. Despite Mitchell's plea, city workers aren't eager to give up their day off honoring Honest Abe.

"The penny, the car," chuckled Baltimore Deputy Labor Commissioner Deborah F. Moore. "We love everything about Lincoln."

Pub Date: 2/11/00

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