Abe Lincoln, Colombia, and Cognitive Dissonance

Last week, my younger sister went to Colombia with her choir, Cantigas. She sent me this picture from their first performance venue, the Abraham Lincoln Auditorium at Centro Columbo Americano.


It got me wondering about the ways that Abraham Lincoln and the US Civil War might be remembered in South America. I did a ridiculously quick google search and discovered that there are many schools named Colegio Abraham Lincoln throughout Colombia, Peru, and other South American nations. Most of them were founded about 60 years ago. Lincoln certainly has a very positive image in Colombia. I am reminded of Scott Hartwig’s comments during the concluding panel at the 2013 Gettysburg Civil War Institute Summer Conference — he noted the many international visitors who come to Gettysburg out of reverence for Lincoln, the words of the Gettysburg Address, and the ideals that he therefore represents.

At the same time, I was setting up assignments for students in my introductory African American history course — we are entering the early twentieth century, often called the “nadir of American race relations.” It’s very clear that the violence that plagued the U.S. as an integral component of maintaining white supremacy was not unique. Things were pretty bad for Afro-Latin Americans as well. The story I tell to encapsulate all the trends of this era is Colombia’s 1928 Banana Massacre. The image of the United States in commemorative artwork related to the Banana Massacre is decidedly less positive.


I have to wonder which version of US leadership Colombians really think of first. Do people hate U.S. economic and military power as it was projected through much of the twentieth century, but revere American ideology as represented by Lincoln? Or do different people focus on different things — I wonder who attends the various Colegios Abraham Lincoln, and if they are specific to one class or race in Colombian society. The timing of their founding is significant as well, I think, which makes me wonder who created those schools. For a U.S. government eager to win South American hearts and minds in the midst of the Cold War, Abraham Lincoln was definitely a better image than the United Fruit Company. And the 1950s and 1960s were a period of black civil rights activism in Latin America as well as the U.S., so if they were created by Afro-Colombian activists — or by governments looking to make at least some improvements — the name could reflect some idea of Lincoln as a human rights icon.

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