Just after 3 p.m. on that fateful day, President Lincoln heard a commotion outside his White House office, followed by a woman’s cry.
“But I need to see Mr. Lincoln!”
Lincoln opened the office door and saw the guards hustling the woman out. The date was April 14, 1865, exactly 150 years ago.
“I’m here,” he reportedly said. “Tell me what you want. I have time for all good people who need to see me. Let the good woman come in.”
Lincoln invited the woman into his office. She proceeded to tell him that she was Nancy Bushrod. She said she and her husband, Tom, had been slaves at the Harwood Plantation outside Richmond until they were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. Her husband was off serving with the Union Army of the Potomac while she raised their three children—twin boys and a baby girl—in Washington, D.C.
She further explained to Lincoln that she had been receiving her husband’s pay but that it had stopped for some reason and she had been unable to find work. Her cupboard was bare, and the crying of her hungry children that morning had driven her to desperation.
She herself had not eaten in two days, but she summoned the strength to make the five-mile trek to the White House. She had charged right past the first group of guards, but the next group had stopped her. Her mission had seemed to be ending in defeat when Lincoln appeared and invited her in.
“You are entitled to your soldier-husband’s pay,” Lincoln is said to have told her now. “Come this time tomorrow and the papers will be signed and ready for you.”
He is reported to have offered her some advice.
“My good woman, perhaps you will see many a day when all the food in the house is a single loaf of bread,” Lincoln told her. “Even so, give every child a slice and send your children to school.”
Lincoln bade her farewell with a bow.
“Like I was a natural born lady,” she would later be quoted saying.
The following morning, Bushrod made the long trek back to the White House, only to discover her way blocked by a large crowd that had gathered outside. A cop informed her that the president was dead. Lincoln had been shot just seven hours after she left him the day before.
According to a 1930 Christian Herald article, the cop was so touched by Bushrod’s plight that he arranged for her to get a job as a “janitress” at Ford’s Theater, where the assassin John Wilkes Booth had fired the fatal shot into Lincoln’s head.
Bushrod is said to have termed it “holy work” to scrub daily the floor where Lincoln had taken his last steps. She left after four years to join a brother in Wisconsin with the hope her children would enjoy better educational opportunities. She ran a laundry from her home and heeded Lincoln’s parting advice, putting them through school with whatever coins she could save.
One of the twins, Booker, is said by the Christian Herald to have been inspired to become a teacher after attending a lecture by Booker T. Washington. The other twin, David, is said to have become a minister in Detroit, by one account at the city’s first black church. The daughter, Chloe, married a minister from Milwaukee and reportedly died giving birth to a girl who was named Beulah.
Beulah’s father drowned while trying to save someone in distress. The orphaned girl nonetheless became valedictorian at her high school and had gone on to college when her grandmother, Nancy Bushrod, was in her 80s. Lincoln’s wisdom had blossomed in a second generation.
The clan’s progress becomes more difficult to trace from there, but future successes would no doubt provide further proof of the value of going to school, whatever your immediate circumstances.
Sadly, Nancy Bushrod is not here to see that the White House she visited 150 years ago this week now has a black president in residence.
There is a good chance the next president will be a woman.
And there is no reason why a future president could not be both black and a woman.
Hey, if Hillary Clinton can run for president, why not Michelle Obama after putting in a little time in Congress?
Our present first lady is at least as smart and tough as Hillary. Nobody can rightly say Michelle is less than trustworthy.
And Nancy Bushrod would love Michelle all the more for her focus on the needs of our military families in a time of war.
Michelle is even from the Land of Lincoln.