4:50pm

Sat January 18, 2014
History

Church Struggles With Protecting Emancipation Proclamation Draft

Originally published on Sat January 18, 2014 5:36 pm

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Now to something quite a bit older - the paper on which Abraham Lincoln wrote the early plans to end slavery in the United States. While many important documents from American history find a home at the National Archives, behind protective cases and security, this Lincoln document is displayed at a church in Washington, D.C. Heather Taylor brings us the story.

HEATHER TAYLOR, BYLINE: Five days before Christmas in 1951, the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., received a major gift: a document written by Abraham Lincoln. It came from Barney Balaban, president of Paramount of Pictures and a son of Russian-Jewish immigrants. He told the congregation that there was no more perfect place to express his gratitude to America, a country he loved.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARNEY BALABAN: This evening, Goldie and Israel Balaban's son is privileged to present Abraham Lincoln's first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, one of the great documents of our American heritage, to the church in which Lincoln worshipped.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH BELLS)

TAYLOR: Sixty-two years later, visitors still flock to Lincoln's church to see the two-page ink and paper document. It's an early draft proposal about how to end slavery. For this 700-member congregation, the Lincoln document reflects its mission of inclusion and social justice.

But although the Lincoln manuscript remains intact, Dan Stokes says the church is worried about how to preserve the document over the long term. Stokes is the church archivist and a staff member at the National Archives.

DAN STOKES, NATIONAL ARCHIVES: When it was donated, it was sealed away in a case that was, I'm sure, appropriate for the time. But the wonderful efforts that were made to preserve it in the '50s are no longer wonderful. We've had people from Smithsonian come in - preservation experts - and say, here's what you need to do and here's how it should be housed.

TAYLOR: At the Archives, documents are displayed very differently. Church historian Wilson Golden says that's because the Archives adheres to modern preservation standards.

WILSON GOLDEN: If you go to the Archives and you see the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence, those documents are almost flat. They're just slightly elevated at the top but very, very slightly. Number two, they are in a gaseous environment that is, you know, the science is always improving. And thirdly, it's the dimmest of lights.

TAYLOR: And the Lincoln document?

GOLDEN: It's just one of the most interesting things you'll see, if you're interested in just historical documents. But the lighting is wrong, the slope is wrong, the gas is wrong.

TAYLOR: The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church would like to update the display. But that could cost thousands of dollars - dollars that are needed to help with basic upkeep, like replacing 62-year-old wiring and crumbling brickwork and bolstering church programs. But Dan Stokes says without actually opening up the display case, it's hard to know the real cost.

ARCHIVES: Because it's in this glass frame and then behind it is a second glass wall, we don't know what condition it's in. If we took that apart, is it all going to be one nice sheet of paper or is it going to come into pieces.

TAYLOR: But while there are still preservation concerns, security is less of an issue. Wilson Golden says there's a good reason.

GOLDEN: This is mounted in a ton of concrete. Plus, it's kind of inside the building. So you couldn't pull a truck up here and haul it off.

TAYLOR: Church docent Paul Dornan is more philosophical.

PAUL DORNAN: It's intentional that this place so close to the White House be open to the public and to anyone who would be seeking social justice and spiritual nourishment. And in that notion of hospitality, how else would we be able to make visible a document that we treasure and that we think everyone else should?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TAYLOR: But to continue offering that hospitality may depend on finding another generous donor. For NPR News, I'm Heather Taylor. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related Program