When a Mourning Ribbon is a Memento of Friendship

Katherine RivardArtifacts
Longfellow House in spring with lilacs blooming

This mourning ribbon, preserved at Longfellow House - Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site, was kept by one of the greatest American poets in history as a reminder of the loss of one of his closest friends, and one of the America’s most vocal abolitionists. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Charles Sumner shared a deep friendship and an equally deep belief that slavery was immoral. Together, they spent countless hours together on weekends, enjoying each other’s company for almost 35 years.

Portrait of Senator Charles Sumner and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Titled "The Politics and Poetry of New England".
Library of Congress

During his lifetime, Longfellow knew a fame like few other Americans of his time. Though critics debated the merits of his work, the public overwhelmingly loved Longfellow. Publishers consistently sold new editions of his poetry and he was often featured in newspapers and magazines.

Longfellow’s renown spread abroad as well. He is the only American to be honored in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey in London. Beyond his popularity with the public, he was incredibly well-connected with other writers and politicians. Some of closest friends included Nathaniel Hawthorne, Cornelius Felton, and one of his dearest comrades, Senator Charles Sumner.

Charles Sumner and Henry Longfellow’s shared political beliefs were one topic that brought them together. Sumner grew up on Beacon Hill in Boston, where he became friends with some of the city’s leading black abolitionists. Touring Boston African American National Historic Site and joining the Black Heritage Trail tour, which ends at the Museum of African American History, rangers point out the home where Sumner lived. He is remembered best for his famous speech, “The Crime Against Kansas,” for which he was beaten with a cane by a congressman from South Carolina only two days later.

Charles Sumner's black mourning ribbon
National Park Service

Though he survived this attack, on March 11, 1874, Charles Sumner passed away from a heart attack. Longfellow served as one of the pallbearers at his funeral and likely wore the mourning ribbon on this occasion. Writing to a friend after Sumner’s death, Longfellow mentions his passing, but then “cannot write more,” seemingly overwhelmed with grief. In time, he went on to write a touching poem, commemorating his friend.

All parks are museums, filled with fossils, artifacts, art, and more. Longfellow House - Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site was once used as the military quarters by General George Washington at the start of the Revolutionary War, but it most famously served as the home of one of the nation’s greatest poets.

Given its long history filled with fascinating historical figures, it’s only natural that this special place is chock-full of historic pieces spanning hundreds of years. #FindYourPark / #EncuentraTuParque at this unique park in Cambridge, MA to uncover its many layers of history for yourself.

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