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Obama makes pilgrimage to Lincoln assassination site

Prez Barack Obama made a poignant pilgrimage to "hallowed" Ford's Theatre where his political hero, president Abraham Lincoln was cut down by an assassin's bullet

world Updated: Feb 12, 2009 11:44 IST

President Barack Obama on Wednesday made a poignant pilgrimage to "hallowed" Ford's Theatre where his political hero, president Abraham Lincoln was cut down by an assassin's bullet.

Obama's historical status as America's first black president is forming a circle closing undertone to 200th birth anniversary celebrations of Lincoln, the president instrumental in abolishing slavery.

He took a three minute motorcade from the White House to officiate at the ceremonial reopening of the theatre, after its 18 month, 25 million dollar renovation, a day before Civil War president Lincoln's bicentennial.

"Despite all that divided us, north and south, black and white, (Lincoln) had an unyielding belief that we were, at heart, one nation, and one people," said Obama, who repeatedly invoked the memory of Lincoln in his 2008 campaign.

"And because of Abraham Lincoln, and all who've carried on his work in the generations since, that is what we remain today," said Obama in remarks released by the White House.

Obama, like Lincoln, a former Illinois state legislator who made an unlikely run all the way to the White House, said he and wife Michelle were honored to rededicate the theatre, a "hallowed space" in central Washington.

"We know that Ford's Theatre will remain a place where Lincoln's legacy thrives, where his love of the humanities and belief in the power of education have a home, and where his generosity of spirit are reflected in all the work that takes place."

The theatre reopened with a revamped stage, comfortable new seats and a spacious lobby showcasing the coat Lincoln wore when he was shot at the site in 1865.

The Ford's Theatre Museum will open this spring after completing its own makeover.

Obama was the star attraction at a reopening gala featuring stars from stage and screen, one day before the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth in a log cabin on February 12, 1809.

The evening featured a video rendering to the Gettysburg Address, a seminal speech in US history delivered by Lincoln during the Civil War, by living former US presidents Jimmy Carter, George Bush, Bill Clinton and George W Bush.

Acting legend Sydney Poitier and filmmaker George Lucas were to receive honorary Lincoln Medals at the star studded evening, with appearances expected by Emmy Award winning actor Kelsey Grammer and actor James Earl Jones.

"This is a great moment in history. Who would have ever predicted when we started this project to celebrate the life of Lincoln that one of the first persons to walk onto the stage in the renovated theatre would be the first African-American president?" Ford's Theatre Society Chairman Wayne Reynolds told AFP.

"What a long way we've come as a country."

Obama, who launched his campaign in early 2007 in Lincoln's hometown of Springfield, Illinois, where he will return on Thursday for a commemorative dinner, took the oath of office on January 20 on Lincoln's Bible.

"Like Lincoln, President Obama faces the challenges of war and economic turmoil here at home and around the world. But he is also calling for unity. He is also calling for change," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told reporters.

It was on the evening of April 14, 1865 that Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth stepped into Lincoln's box at Ford's Theatre and fatally shot the president. The theatre was closed for more than a hundred years after Lincoln's assassination, reopening in 1968.

Since then, over 30 million visitors from the United States and around the world have visited the site, Tetreault said. The theater gets nearly one million visitors each year.

The renovation, the most extensive in the theatre's history, was part of a campaign to raise more than 50 million dollars for a Lincoln-themed campus grouping the theatre, the museum and the nearby Petersen House where Lincoln died.

It will also house the new Center for Education and Leadership, set to open in 2010.

The theatre's reopening comes amid a flurry of other exhibitions here for Lincoln's bicentennial.

"There really is a great connection between the city of Washington, DC and President Lincoln," Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty said at the theatre's ribbon cutting ceremony.