The name of Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States, is inextricably linked with African Americans.
Lincoln was elected President in 1860 on a platform of prohibiting the spread of slavery into the U. S. territories, like Kansas and Nebraska, that had not yet become states. His most famous single act during the Civil War was the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, which effectively shut the door on slavery in this country forever. Lincoln himself said, “If my name goes down in history, it will be for this act.”
But in 1940, in the nation’s capital, there were apparently some influential people who hadn’t yet figured out the connection between Abraham Lincoln and African Americans. For them, the idea that Lincoln and his legacy might be represented by a black man was something they just couldn’t stomach.
A contest to find a Lincoln look-alike
It all started with a publicity campaign organized around the opening of the film “Abe Lincoln in Illinois” starring Raymond Massey as Lincoln. The Washington Daily News, along with the RKO-Keith’s Theatre, where the film would be premiered, decided to have a contest for the Washingtonian who looked most like Lincoln in his early days. Hundreds of photographs were received, and finally a selection was made.
The man selected as looking most like Abraham Lincoln was Thomas P. Bomar, a Washington attorney. Bomar was invited to meet the judges at the exclusive Carleton Hotel. They were highly impressed that not only did Bomar closely resemble Lincoln in his facial features, but in the rest of his body as well. He was tall like Lincoln, and had large hands with long fingers like Lincoln did. Even his hair looked like Lincoln’s. The judges gushed that Bomar looked more like Lincoln than did the film’s star, Raymond Massey, and in fact, could have been Lincoln’s twin brother.
Bomar was given two front-row tickets for the premier, and told that he would be called to the stage and presented with a check for $25. He would even get to appear along with Massey on a radio broadcast from the stage.
The winner turns out to be black!
Then someone noticed Bomar’s address. It was 132 S Street, N. W. It was that “N. W.” that caught their attention, because it indicated that Bomar lived in a black section of Washington. Suddenly the contest managers lost all their enthusiasm about highlighting this close double of the 16th president. The man looked almost exactly like Lincoln, but wasn’t his skin just a shade too dark?
As far as the officials of the theatre were concerned, the fact that Thomas Bomar looked white but was actually black was an absolute disqualification. You see, the RKO-Keith’s Theatre was a totally segregated “Jim Crow” facility. Blacks were not allowed. In fact, African Americans would be picketing the opening of the Lincoln film because they were forbidden entrance to the theatre.
Let’s just forget the whole thing
When Thomas Bomar arrived at the theatre, along with his daughter, they were allowed to enter, apparently because they looked white and so were not stopped at the door. Besides, with the contest having been widely publicized already, it would have been a little awkward for the theatre, already under fire for its bigotry, to kick out the winner because of his race.
However, once inside the Bomars found themselves not on the front row, as the tickets they had been given dictated, but in row 5. And somehow the cue for him to go up on the stage to receive his reward for winning the contest never came. A brief notice was quietly made that Bomar had won the contest, and that was all.
Publicly honor a black man for his resemblance to Abraham Lincoln? In the Washington of the 1940s, that was a non-starter.
Thomas Bomar has the last laugh
Although he had been dissed by the theatre because of his race, Thomas Bomar would rise above the attempted racial put-down.
Born in 1892, he had worked for the Post Office from an early age as a letter carrier and railway mail clerk. He continued as a postal worker even after receiving his law degree from Howard University Law School, and in 1939 was elected national secretary of the National Alliance of Postal Employees, the black postal workers union. He would serve as the union’s general counsel from 1957 to 1970. With his professional qualifications, he also began to rise in the management ranks of the Post Office Department.
On February 13, 1947 an entry appears on President Harry Truman’s calendar for the president to meet with Mr. Thomas P. Bomar, Assistant District Superintendent- at-Large, Railway Mail Service. Then, in 1952 Bomar, already the highest ranking African American in the Post Office Department, was promoted to Assistant General Superintendent of the Postal Transportation Service. He also maintained a law practice in Washington.
Thomas P. Bomar died in Washington, DC in 1974.
© 2015 Ronald E. Franklin