Kate Masur

Masur provides an essential introduction to Washington’s world in the nation’s capital and to his research methodology in creating the original book.…Having this work back in print will allow readers to understand sides of Lincoln that informed his thinking about race and will help demystify the mythical Lincoln.”

Library Journal

They Knew Lincoln

Originally published in 1942 and now reprinted for the first time, They Knew Lincoln is a classic in African American history and Lincoln studies. Part memoir and part history, the book is an account of John E. Washington’s childhood among African Americans in Washington, DC, and of the black people who knew or encountered Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln.

Washington recounted stories told by his grandmother’s elderly friends – stories of escaping from slavery, meeting Lincoln in the Capitol, learning of the president’s assassination, and hearing ghosts at Ford’s Theatre. He also mined the US government archives and researched little-known figures in Lincoln’s life, including William Johnson, who accompanied Lincoln from Springfield to Washington, and William Slade, the steward in Lincoln’s White House. Washington was fascinated from childhood by the question of how much African Americans themselves had shaped Lincoln’s views on slavery and race, and he believed Lincoln’s Haitian-born barber, William de Fleurville, was a crucial influence. Washington also extensively researched Elizabeth Keckly, the dressmaker to Mary Todd Lincoln, and advanced a new theory of who helped her write her controversial book, Behind the Scenes.

A new introduction by Kate Masur places Washington’s book in its own context, explaining the contents of They Knew Lincoln in light of not only the era of emancipation and the Civil War, but also Washington’s own times, when the nation’s capital was a place of great opportunity and creativity for members of the African American elite. On publication, a reviewer noted that the collection of Negro stories, memories, legends about Lincoln” seemed to fill such an obvious gap in the material about Lincoln that one wonders why no one ever did it before.” This edition brings it back to print for a twenty-first century readership that remains fascinated with Abraham Lincoln.

About the Author

John E. Washington (18801964) was a public school teacher, dentist, amateur historian, and collector of Lincolniana who lived in Washington, DC and Highland Beach, Maryland.

Kate Masur teaches in the Department of History at Northwestern University. She is the author of An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle over Equality in Washington, D.C. and the co-editor of The World the Civil War Made.

Praise for They Knew Lincoln

This long awaited new edition of They Knew Lincoln, with Kate Masur’s brilliant scholarly introduction, makes available to researchers at every level a set of perspectives that have long been overlooked or difficult to access. The volume not only sheds light on the interactions between African Americans and President Lincoln; it also reveals nuances in the complexities of African American social structure as it evolved in Washington DC during and after the Civil War. Masur and the Oxford editorial staff are to be commended for this service rendered to scholars as well as to the general public.”

— Wilson J. Moses, author of Alexander Crummell: A Study of Civilization and Discontent

Scholars and the general reader are indebted to Kate Masur for making this out-of-print classic available once more. Her invaluable, comprehensive introduction expertly contextualizes John Washington’s extraordinary contribution to our understanding of Abraham Lincoln and the ordinary people of color with whom he interacted. This volume is a must-have addition to anyone’s Lincoln or Civil War history collection.”

— Edna Greene Medford, author of Lincoln and Emancipation

A full understanding of Abraham Lincoln and the American Civil War is not possible without the voices of African Americans. As They Knew Lincoln illustrates, Lincoln’s story is their story; their story is Lincoln’s story. And somewhere within the overlapping historical narratives of their lives is the true story of slavery, emancipation, and Civil War meaning and memory.”

— Stacy Pratt McDermott, author of Mary Lincoln: Southern Girl, Northern Woman

In resurrecting Washington’s book, Masur advances the hopeful view that adding knowledge, adding perspectives, adding experience to our shared history actually make us all richer.”

The Washington Post

The perfect gift to celebrate the February 12 birthday of President Abraham LincolnEL Masur’s insightful, robust introduction to this unique book makes a compelling case that those with everyday interactions with the 16th president shaped his view on slavery and race.”

The National Book Review

Because Washington’s book sold out quickly and was never reprinted, 21st-century readers will applaud Masur’s heroic efforts in painstakingly researching Washington’s life and unearthing the publishing history of his obscure book, which Carl Sandburg termed an important human narrative.’…A broad range of readers will consider this reprint an invaluable addition to Lincoln scholarship and to the dignity and possibility of African American history. Essential.”


A broad range of readers will consider this reprint an invaluable addition to Lincoln scholarship and to the dignity and possibility of African American history.”

— J. D. Smith, Choice

I am falling in love with this classic account was written by former Cardozo High School teacher John E. Washington. They Knew Lincoln tells the stories of many African Americans who knew or encountered Abraham Lincoln.”

— Amanda Alexander, D.C. Public School Chancellor, Cist