African Americans were not foolish enough to think their welfare would be the utmost concern of a white politician. As Frederick Douglass said, Lincoln “was preeminently the white man’s President,” and they were “at best only his step-children.” But this didn’t mean Lincoln couldn’t be a useful ally, especially if his own self-interest aligned with theirs.
In the stories of Lincoln coming down South, he was rarely concerned first and foremost with the welfare of black people. In one story, for example, his animosity towards the slaveholding class was seemingly motivated by a perceived insult rather than a moral opposition to slavery. Lincoln had supposedly visited a plantation in Jefferson County, Arkansas, asking for work. The owner replied that he’d talk to him once he’d had dinner—without inviting the stranger to eat with him. As J. T. Tims, a former slave, explained, his owner “didn’t say, ‘Come to dinner,’ and didn’t say nothin’ ’bout, ‘Have dinner.’ Just said, ‘Wait till I go eat my dinner.’” And when he finished eating, he found the stranger had “changed his clothes and everything” and was looking over the slaveholder’s business papers and account books. The stranger whom the slaveholder had treated like poor “white trash” had revealed himself to be a powerful man.
It didn’t bother African Americans if Lincoln emancipated them only to punish the white South. They didn’t need him to be a saint. But they also knew he wasn’t a king; he couldn’t just make emancipation happen on his own. If the enslaved people of the South needed Lincoln, then he needed them too.
And so in the stories told by freedpeople, there’s a Lincoln who worked with slaves to end slavery. He attended nightly prayer meetings held by slaves in secret. He asked them what their lives were like and what they needed from him. After the war broke out, he encouraged slaves to join the “Yankee army” and “fight for your freedom.” And at the war’s end, according to one account, Lincoln gathered up all the Confederate money in Georgia in a big pile at the state capitol and asked the oldest black man there to set it on fire.
Lincoln didn’t just work with African Americans; he became a familiar figure in black folklore. Like Brer Rabbit, and indeed like most slaves, the Lincoln in these stories often had to resort to guile and deception in order to get what he wanted. But he also had a certain degree of latitude that wasn’t possible in slavery, allowing survivors of slavery to vicariously enjoy his exploits.
In one account, for example, Lincoln, disguised as a peddler, came upon some white women sitting on a porch in North Carolina. He looked so hot and tired that one of the women, Miss Fanny, brought him a “cool drink of milk.” He had a drink and then asked Miss Fanny how many slaves they had, how many of their men were fighting for the Confederacy, and finally what they thought of “Mistah Abraham Lincoln.” At that point the plantation mistress, Miss Virginia, declared no one was to speak that man’s name in her presence, and she would shoot him if he ever set foot on her property. “Maybe he ain’ so bad,” her guest said, chuckling. A few weeks later, Miss Fanny received a letter from Lincoln revealing himself to have been the peddler, thanking her “for de res’ on her shady po’ch and de cool glass of milk.”