In January, the artist Hank Willis Thomas began enigmatically summoning designers, musicians and activists he knew to his studio in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He was working on something big, bringing a force of history back to life.
“I didn’t even know why he was asking me to come by,” the artist Wildcat Ebony Brown recalled. “It was a bit like a mad scientist-type of situation.”
In and out of the studio in those first few weeks of the year were loose groupings of luminaries like the artist José Parlá; the hip-hop pioneer Fab 5 Freddy; Rujeko Hockley, Mr. Thomas’s wife and a curator of the 2019 Whitney Biennial; Tariq Trotter (also known as Black Thought) of the Roots; the restaurateur Tracey Ryans; Carly Fischer, a former researcher at the Whitney Museum; and Eric Gottesman, a photographer and Mr. Thomas’s collaborator on For Freedoms, an artist-led political action committee they founded in 2016.
Mr. Thomas said he wanted the Navy Yard crew — and eventually thousands of autonomous artist-activists around the world — “to set the tone for creativity, and the value of creativity in liberation, through community, through love and commemoration.” But first, he needed to share with them an obscure historical precedent, a story familiar almost exclusively to historians and Civil War re-enactors.
Even before the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests that would come to define the spring and summer of 2020, Mr. Thomas had been inspired by another moment, 160 years ago, when a political awakening around racial justice, immigration and workers’ rights coincided with a high-stakes presidential election.
Entering his cavernous studio, visitors encountered whiteboards scrawled with notes, and an array of 19th-century images printed out from the internet — vintage campaign ribbons and banners, political cartoons, photos of young white men posing sternly in black capes and illustrated scenes of the men marching through the streets of New York and other cities, carrying lit torches.
“They looked a bit frightening to me. It looked like maybe a group of guys that I wouldn’t want to run into on the street,” Ms. Brown, the artist, said. “White men with torches. I mean, it kind of conjures up feelings of Charlottesville. But then you learn, like, Oh, no, actually they were abolitionists.”
The caped figures in the 1860s engravings adorning the walls of the studio were the Wide Awakes, a rowdy movement of young men (and occasionally women) who staged dramatic rallies in the streets of Northern cities. Under the banner of “Free Speech, Free Soil, Free Men,” they marched and sang and caused a scene, to whip up enthusiasm for the nascent Republican Party and its nominee for president, Abraham Lincoln.
Mr. Thomas first came across pictures of the Wide Awakes about a decade ago, and they remained in the back of his mind. In recent months, with Ms. Fischer, Mr. Gottesman and others, he started compiling more research, he said, with the idea of creating a network of makers and doers in the spirit of the Wide Awakes and “the nonviolent, entertaining, visionary work that they were trying to do.”
Like the Lincoln-loving boys in their matching capes, this new thing would have to be joyful. “If being civically engaged feels like a burden this season, we’re not going to have the level of impact we think we should,” Mr. Thomas said. “They’re called political parties. Let’s make it a party.”
The original Wide Awakes came about organically as well. In March 1860, a Kentucky abolitionist named Cassius Clay visited Hartford, Conn., to campaign on behalf of the Republican candidate for governor, and a small cohort of supporters accompanied him to and from his speech, carrying leaky kerosene torches and wearing oilcloth capes and caps to protect themselves from the dripping oil. The crowds were impressed, and the look caught on. By summer, there were clubs in virtually every major Northern city, parading in military formations by the hundreds, if not thousands.
Even many Northerners, however, were troubled by the Wide Awakes, particularly the existence of clubs of Black Wide Awakes in cities like Boston and Chicago. The Bedford Gazette of Pennsylvania, which operated halfway between Gettysburg and Pittsburgh, reprinted news of a Boston parade, alarmed by 100 Black marchers “right side by side with white men, and shouting for Lincoln!” The paper asked, “White men of Pennsylvania, can you, will you support such a party?”
More alarmed, of course, were newspapers in the South, which reported the Wide Awakes’ unarmed but well-drilled demonstrations as a menacing sign that the North was preparing to invade if Lincoln were elected. To defend against this imagined threat of violent radicals, places like Charleston, S.C., Augusta, Ga., and New Orleans raised their own local militias called “Minute Men.”
When such tensions broke into actual war, after Lincoln’s inauguration, many of the Wide Awakes were among the first wave to join the Union army. And apparently the oilcloth was a perfect bit of infantry gear. One of the young Hartford Wide Awakes wrote home in 1861, asking his parents to send his cape, which he said “will be handy for rainy weather much more than a blanket, as they are the right shape.”
It was the capes that first intrigued Jerry, a Green Beret currently stationed overseas who asked to not use his last name because of his active-duty special forces status. Jerry had been a Civil War re-enactor since the age of 9, but he only learned about the Wide Awakes a few years ago. “Looking at pictures of them, I think I was drawn to the fact that these guys looked so cool,” he said.
Jerry felt strongly enough about the Wide Awakes — their devotion to the Union, their esprit de corps — that he got a tattoo based on their original banner, with an illustration of an open eye between the words “wide” and “awake,” above the year “1860.”
The image is a major set piece in a two-arm collection of American-history ink that includes the “Join, or Die” snake, the Liberty Bell, “1776” and the Civil War infantry bugle. His Wide Awakes banner is on the outside of his right forearm, right next to the Nathan Hale quote, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country” — in Arabic.
Sean Sullivan, another re-enactor, who lives in Greenlawn, N.Y., on Long Island, has an identical tattoo on his left forearm. (The two men know each other, but were until recently unaware they were tattoo twins.) Mr. Sullivan, too, is particularly taken with the Wide Awakes’ aesthetics.
The original Wide Awakes dressed in oilcloth to protect themselves from dripping lantern fuel, but c’mon, Mr. Sullivan said: “They probably just did it because it looks good with the reflections. You know, all the torches, they would march at nighttime, they would shoot fireworks. You read about how the light reflecting off of the oilcloth was really something that they liked.”
In 2018, Mr. Sullivan put together a handful of like-minded friends to do a re-enactment of the Wide Awakes for the Remembrance Day parade in Gettysburg, held annually in mid-November in observance of the anniversary of Lincoln’s famous address. He was a driving force behind a small, private Facebook group of a few dozen who had been planning to march as Wide Awakes this year as well, but the parade was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
When told about the new Wide Awakes, Mr. Sullivan — who wore his own Wide Awakes T-shirt to a Black Lives Matter protest in Greenlawn in June — was delighted by “a movement to help create political and social changes, which is what the original Wide Awakes were doing,” he said. “I think it’s a group that Lincoln could get behind.”
Mr. Sullivan even got into a bar fight defending the original Wide Awakes’ honor at Remembrance Day last year. Two Confederate re-enactors, “good old boys,” he said, spotted the tattoo on his forearm.
“They started verbally attacking me for being pro-Union,” he recalled. “Some of these Lost-Causer re-enactors that feel the war is still going on, you know, ‘heritage not hate’ and all that stuff. They felt the need to get verbally loud with me. And it was a little intimidating.”
Mr. Sullivan sensed the conversation wasn’t going to end well, but also felt too tired and, at 35, too old to fight like he used to. When the waitress came by, he said, “I apologize.” For what, she asked. “For this.” And he poured the Confederate re-enactors’ beers over their heads and ran out the door, then all the way back to his hotel.
Enter Mr. Thomas and his army of creatives, one of whom — Mr. Trotter — showed up to his first Navy Yard brainstorm, by sheer coincidence, already wearing a cape.
“Everyone was looking at me like, ‘Oh my God, how could you have known?’” he recalled. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, you know, it felt like a cape kind of day!’”
On a clothing rack against one wall was a growing collection of prototypes for newly reimagined Wide Awake capes by designers including Ms. Brown, Anya Ayoung Chee, Kambui Olujimi and Coby Kennedy, whose zippered wrap has a colorful sheen inspired by the original oilcloth. On the whiteboards around the room, a constantly evolving group of diverse collaborators added to one another’s ideas for art installations, films, comic books, merchandise, fashion, musical performances and other initiatives and events. All under the watchful eye of the sepia-toned dead men from Hartford.
“There are so many challenges in our world that seem impossible to overcome,” Ms. Fischer said of the 1860 clubs. “And this group of energetic and excited young folks who gathered together and who made cool things and who wore cool things and who were inspired by one another, and imagined a different world — that is really central to so much of the work.”
As Mr. Parlá put it, “We sampled and remixed the Wide Awakes.”
A mission statement was drafted defining the new Wide Awakes as “a network of like minds who create in the name of liberation, artist sovereignty, and the evolution of society.” The group aims “to radically reimagine the future and enable self-emancipation.” What that has yielded in practical terms, so far, is a series of free-form happenings, including a Juneteenth celebration in Harlem; Fourth of July rallies in New York, Berlin, and Chicago; an observance of the centennial of the passage of the 19th Amendment, at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn; and an appearance at the anniversary March on Washington. (Not to mention a flood of gorgeous Instagram posts.)
The pop-up nature of the events has meant that many people end up participating spontaneously. They dance to a DJ or drum corps. The children paint signs. People register to vote. Wandering by, they peruse artwork or sit in floral thrones constructed by Ms. Brown.
“People even told us, ‘I needed this. I’ve been alone and afraid,’” Mr. Parlá said. “Some of the traditional protests, the early protests, the air was thick with intensity, you know? And so we created this alternative way to protest, which was protesting through joy. Because I think what we realized was that we also needed it, and we wanted to give it.”
Over Labor Day weekend, the Wide Awakes returned to Grand Army Plaza for a celebration of Caribbean culture, on the eve of what would have been the West Indian American Day Parade. On the steps of the Brooklyn Public Library, musicians played and politicians spoke, and the renowned Jamaican dancehall singer Sister Nancy crooned to a swaying crowd as the sun set over the plaza’s triumphal arch, with its engraved slogan “To the Defenders of the Union.” Tucked underneath, Abraham Lincoln sat on horseback, in bronze.
The collective is now finalizing plans for a series of events on Oct. 3, which is the 160th anniversary of the largest Wide Awake rally in New York. The 1860 predecessor will be tough to match. More than 30,000 Wide Awakes from across the country paraded up and down Broadway and Fifth Avenue, torches and fireworks as far as the eye could see. A live buffalo was brought from Kansas, and an elk from Minnesota. A miniature log cabin on wheels rolled through, as did a wood-and-linen replica of the White House lit from inside, and an ox-drawn wagon atop which a tall Lincoln impersonator was theatrically splitting rails.
The new Wide Awakes plan to be just as visible. When Alicia Keys performed on NFL opening night, she played before a huge video screen that was alight with images by artists affiliated with the Wide Awakes — including the iconic open-eye symbol they have adopted. The group promises to conjure all manner of creative joyousness leading up to the election, and beyond, with the guiding purpose being “liberation of mind, body, and spirit.”
As Mr. Trotter put it: “Throughout history, it’s been young people and creatives and intellectuals and philosophers and — just the visionaries — who understood the power in uniting, and who contributed to the greatest progress. So what the Wide Awakes represent, in my mind, is that. The modern-day version of something that we’ve seen, at different points throughout history, emerge as it was needed.”
Matt Dellinger is the author of “Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway,” and is at work on a book about Brooklyn in the Civil War.