Slaves in the White House

From a very interesting article in the International Herald Tribune

“…Slaves who worked inside and outside the White House were known for their labors. Washington planner Pierre L’Enfant rented slaves from nearby slaveowners to dig the foundation for the White House, and White House designer James Hoben used some of his slave carpenters to build the White House.

President George Washington forced slaves from Mount Vernon to work as staff inside “the President’s House” in Philadelphia during his term, starting a tradition of enslaved men and women working for the president in his residence that would continue until the 1850s. Not only did they work in the White House, enslaved men and women lived there as well.

According to the White House Historical Association, the slave and servant quarters were in the basement, now called the ground floor. The rooms now include the library, china room, offices and the formal Diplomatic Reception Room. At least one African-American baby was born there, in 1806 to Fanny and Eddy, two of Jefferson’s slaves. The child, who was considered a slave too, died two years later.

History values these slaves for more than just their labor.

Paul Jennings, James Madison’s personal slave, told the very first tale of White House life written by someone who lived there. Jennings, in his memoirs, debunked the oft-repeated White House legend of first lady Dolley Madison saving the portrait of Washington from invading British troops.

“This is totally false,” Jennings said. “She had no time for doing it. It would have required a ladder to get it down. All she carried off was the silver.”

Instead, a Frenchman, John Susé, and Magraw, the president’s gardener, took the painting down and sent it off on a wagon, said Jennings, who later in his life would give part of the money he earned as a freedman to help out a destitute Dolley Madison, who suffered financially after the death of James Madison.

As the years progressed, the role of African-Americans inside the White House also progressed.

Blacks moved from slaves at the White House to honored guests — President Abraham Lincoln met with abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth in the White House — to indispensable parts of White House life reflected in William Slade’s appointment by President Andrew Johnson as the very first White House steward, the person charged with running the domestic side of the White House.

Not only did blacks work in the White House, they also started working at the White House. E. Frederick Morrow was the first African-American to be officially appointed a White House aide by Eisenhower in 1955; John F. Kennedy named Andrew Hatcher associate press secretary in 1960.

The progress was hardly smooth.

In 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt formally invited Booker T. Washington to the White House for dinner. But as Republican presidential candidate John McCain noted in his concession speech, Southern newspapers were outraged and condemned Roosevelt publicly after they learned of the invitation from an Associated Press dispatch. Roosevelt never invited another African-American to a White House dinner again.

All the while, African-American domestic workers like John Pye kept the White House working smoothly behind the scenes.”


Filed under african american, black, black history, change, culture, d.c., government, history, news, slavery, society, washington, washington dc

5 responses to “Slaves in the White House

  1. Tom Neely

    You say that slaves worked in the White House into the 1850s. Who was the last president who had slaves in the White House? Zachary Taylor, president 1849 – 1850, was the last southern president before the Civil War, and he was a slave-owner. Was Taylor the last president who had slaves in the White House?

  2. Yes Taylor, who is said to have owned over 100 slaves.

    During the slave era, nine southern presidents brought some of their planttion slaves with them to the Executive Mansion. Washington initiated the practice in 1789; and the federal government supported this “White House” slavery by reimbursing him for money he spent on his slaves’ clothing. Nine bondsmen and women served the Washington family. The president, his wife, and their children each had a personal slave.

  3. Tom Neely

    Thank you, Sista! Did Taylor bring slaves with him to the White House? And… After Taylor, before Lincoln, we had three presidents: Filmore (from NY), Pierce (from NH), and Buchanan (from PA). Probably none of these was a slave holder.

    Did the White House itself have its own slaves during this time? Slaves who might have served there, even though no president actually brought them there?

    Does anybody know?

  4. Tom Neely

    I found a source on slaves in the White House: The White House Historical Association,

    Here is part of what they say:

    “Thomas Jefferson staffed the White House with enslaved people from Monticello. James
    Madison, under some pressure to try to hold off war with England, entertained extensively, using
    the White House as a place where people could meet and talk. He brought slaves from
    Montpelier, his Virginia estate. Presidents James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, John Tyler, James
    K. Polk, and Zachary Taylor also used enslaved people in the White House. Both Jackson and
    Polk replaced paid White House servants with enslaved people they either brought from home or
    bought locally.”

    This is part of a lesson meant for teachers and students. Lots of good info here. I do not know the original sources, but this is a good place to start looking.

    I do not know why I am amazed that US Presidents had African American slaves in the White House right up through 1850. But I AM amazed. Americans do not know about this. Or they do not think about it.

  5. I agree Tom. This information really brings some perspective to early life in the White House.

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