Spring Break 2017 was spent touring the District of Columbia with an emphasis on National Parks Service sites. Here is the first of three posts inspired by that trip. This post is a rundown of the sites we visited and some of the highlights at each. The next post will have a message for new and expectant parents based on this trip. The final post will seek to learn from these history lessons and apply them to modern day advocacy efforts by and on behalf of those with Down syndrome.
The first site we visited was Booker T. Washington Birthplace National Monument in rural west Virginia. Washington was born into slavery and freed at the age of 9 with the end of the Civil War. He would teach himself to read, walk most of the 500 miles to Hampton Institute for his college degree, and go on to lead the Tuskegee Institute, ultimately being responsible for the education of thousands of African-Americans. The site is replete with wise quotes from Washington, with an emphasis on education and the value of hard work.
We headed east to Appomattox Courthouse National Historical Park. Here, Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Gen. U.S. Grant after Grant had harassed Lee’s retreating army, surrounding him on three sides, leaving only the north open, which offered Lee no refuge. The theme emphasized was the desire to fulfill President Lincoln’s instruction to “let ’em up easy,” referring to the Southerners. Grant’s army did so by allowing Lee’s soldiers to return home with their horses with no fear of prosecution provided they swore never to take up arms again against the Union.
Later in the week, we would visit Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial, Lee’s home which now is Arlington National Cemetery. The home was originally that of George Washington Custis, George Washington’s step-grandson, which Lee inherited when he married Custis’s daughter. Buried in that cemetery was Lincoln’s sole son to survive to adulthood, Robert, who had been at the surrender at Appomattox. Robert arrived in D.C. with Grant to tell his father about the surrender, which they did. Later that evening, to celebrate, Lincoln would attend a play at Ford’s Theatre, where Booth would assassinate him. Vice-President Johnson would assume the Presidency with a less accepting view of the equality of blacks to whites, allowing discrimination to persist despite the abolition of slavery and the constitutional amendments requiring equal protection under law.
Before arriving in Washington D.C., we paid homage to its namesake, America’s first president, George Washington, “the Indispensable Man.” We visited his birthplace and then his historic home of Mount Vernon. There, we learned of Washington’s daring attack on Christmas Day against the Hessian army of the British Empire, which served as a much needed boost to keeping the country’s will to support the revolution. We also learned of his persistence, leading the army for eight grueling years to ultimate success at Yorktown. Fittingly, when we arrived in D.C., his was the first monument we visited.
We were fortunate to arrive in D.C. before the Cherry Blossoms ended their splendor around the Tidal Basin. We toured the Jefferson Memorial and the George Mason Memorial. The quote behind Jefferson’s statute in the picture is from the Declaration of Independence and has been referred to as the American “creed.” We would see the original Declaration at the National Archives before leaving on Friday. Adjacent to the original constitution is the Bill of Rights, modeled after George Mason’s Declaration of Rights for the Virginia Constitution. I had my kids stand next to the statue of Teddy Roosevelt’s cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which depicts him as he lived his adult life, sitting in a wheelchair, having been paralyzed from polio. Behind the statue is a quote from his wife Eleanor on how his physical disability taught Roosevelt the need for patience and persistence.
The final monument on the Tidal Basin is that of Martin Luther King. My kids enjoyed the quote of “out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.” We would then walk to the Lincoln Memorial, where on the steps is engraved “I Have a Dream” for where MLK delivered that speech in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
On Tuesday, we visited the Supreme Court of the United States. There, we saw for the last week where the Court would have only eight seats, with Justice Gorsuch’s confirmation being voted on at the end of the week by the Senate. James also showed his hair is approaching fellow Louisvillian Brandeis in grandeur. At the Supreme Court and at Arlington, I took photos of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., a Union veteran of the Civil War, who wrote the epithet in Buck v. Bell upholding the involuntary sterilization of those deemed “feeble minded”: “three generations of imbeciles is enough.”
After visiting Arlington (and seeing Giant Pandas at the Smithsonian National Zoo), we visited the headquarters for the George Washington Memorial Parkway, where James would be overcome with joy seeing 32 National Parks Service Passport Stamps. As part of the Parkway, we visited the LBJ Memorial Grove and the Theodore Roosevelt Island. Roosevelt’s commitment to conservation led to the formation of the National Parks Service. It was in President Johnson’s administration and through his leadership that the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act were passed, to do away with the vestiges of the “separate but equal” society that had persisted due to the incomplete Reconstruction of the South. It was also LBJ that instituted Medicaid, the healthcare insurance program through which many, if not most, individuals with Down syndrome (my daughter included) receive coverage for basic healthcare needs along with therapies and community living options allowing them to live more inclusive lives than ever before.
On Thursday, we began at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. Like Booker T. Washington, Douglass had been born into slavery, and like Washington, Douglass educated himself, realizing knowledge was the one thing the slave owners could not take away from him. Douglass escaped to the north where he met with Abolitionists and impressed them with his rhetorical gifts. He would tour, ultimately leaving for England, where supporters would purchase his freedom. Returning to the United States, Douglass started the North Star, an abolitionist newspaper. President Lincoln sought his counsel and, after the war, President Hayes appointed him U.S. Marshall for D.C. With freedom won for African Americans, Douglass joined with the suffragette movement to advocate for women’s equality.
Fittingly, after visiting Douglass’s site, we would visit one of the newest National Monuments, the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument. Alva Belmont purchased the home from which the National Woman’s Party would advocate for women to have the vote. Coming decades after Susan B. Anthony’s movement, Alice Paul staged a Woman’s March on the eve of President Wilson’s inauguration and then would run billboard ads against his reelection. Wilson was ultimately swayed to support women’s suffrage and four years after beginning her campaign, Paul would see the 19th Amendment ratified, giving women the right to vote.
Our final stop featured in this travelogue is one I’ve visited many times, but a first for my family: the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. Here, my children would see the portraits and busts of so many of the people whose birthplaces and monuments we had just visited. And, we would visit the portrait of Eunice Kennedy Shriver. Juliet watched the video in the gallery about Shriver’s founding of Special Olympics and would say, when I pointed out that two of the athletes in the portrait had Down syndrome, “like me!” The portrait’s artist happens to be a father to a son with Down syndrome.
Just writing these brief highlights, it jumps out at me how intertwined so many of the lives are whose memorials and monuments we visited: George Washington’s connection to Robert E. Lee through his step-grandson; Robert Lincoln’s presence at the surrender and final resting place on the land owned by Washington’s step-grandson and Lee; Frederick Douglass counseling Lincoln and joining the suffragette movement; Booker T. Washington, freed after the surrender at Appomattox would later write a biography about Douglass; MLK standing on the monument to Lincoln, whose movement gave LBJ the political support for passing the Civil Rights Act; Shriver, the sister of the last assassinated president, would be a leader in the disability rights movement; and, the Belmont-Paul house memorializing the final push to ratify the 19th Amendment, a movement Douglass had supported, and the house being declared a National Monument (based on an act first used by Teddy Roosevelt) by President Obama, our first African-American President.
All these connections, winding through history like the double-helix of the DNA Chromosome. It can make one marvel not only at the interconnectedness of it all, but wonder how different our world would be if just one of these individuals had not acted as they had to advocate for equality and justice for all.
The next post will be about what new and expectant parents may take away from viewing this family trip, a family that happens to have a daughter with Down syndrome.