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African Americans in the White House

This month, Documenting the American South celebrates Black History Month and recognizes the recent inauguration of America's first African American president, Barack Hussein Obama, by highlighting documents from its collections that illustrate the long and complex history of African Americans in the White House. This history shows that, despite the hardships of both slavery and segregation, African Americans have long been a part of the White House: both in its day-to-day operations and in exerting influence on presidential decision-making.

Before Emancipation, the African Americans who labored at the White House were most often enslaved. Paul Jennings (1799-1874)—the son of an English trader and an enslaved African American woman living on James Madison's (1751-1836) Montpelier, Virginia, estate—served as Madison's body servant and lived in the White House throughout his presidency (1809-1817). After Madison's death, Jennings worked and bought his own freedom, and then had a career as a bookbinder in the Department of the Interior. In 1865, an unknown author with the initials J.B.R. published A Colored Man's Reminiscences of James Madison, a nineteen-page text detailing Jennings's recollections of the former president. A major focus of the Reminiscences is the War of 1812, during which British troops took control of both Washington, D.C., and the White House. Jennings recalled that the approach of the British necessitated a hurried evacuation of The White House, during which another enslaved servant had to drive away with "a feather bed lashed on behind the coachee, which was all the furniture saved, except part of the silver and the portrait of Washington" (pp. 8-9). The Reminiscences also give some insight into African American life in D.C. at the time, in particular the involvement of African American soldiers in the defense of the city.

Although the famed African American writer, newspaper editor, and abolitionist Frederick Douglass (circa 1818-1895) had initially opposed Abraham Lincoln's candidacy in favor of a more outspoken abolitionist candidate, the two men eventually became friends and met on three separate occasions. In his final autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1892), Douglass wrote warmly of the man who authored and issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Douglass's first meeting with Lincoln took place in August 1863, after Douglass had traveled to Washington to complain about unequal treatment of African American soldiers in the Union Army. Expecting to have to wait a long time for his audience with the president, Douglass was surprised to hear his name called quickly. Some of the white applicants waiting to be interviewed were angered that a black man was seen before them, and one uttered a racist epithet loud enough for Douglass to hear (Oakes, p. 77). However, Douglass was immediately put at ease by Lincoln. "I at once felt myself in the presence of an honest man," Douglass later recalled, "one whom I could love, honor, and trust without reserve or doubt" (p. 422). During their second meeting, almost exactly one year later, Lincoln's secretary interrupted them twice to inform Lincoln that William Buckingham, the Governor of Connecticut and a close friend of Lincoln's, was waiting to see him. Lincoln earned Douglass' lasting respect by his response: "Tell Governor Buckingham to wait, for I want to have a long talk with my friend Frederick Douglass" (p. 436). Douglass later attended Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865, and after the ceremony he proceeded to the White House to congratulate the president. However, Douglass was stopped at the door by two policemen who attempted to escort him off the premises. When Lincoln was informed that he had been turned away, Douglass was immediately admitted, and Lincoln asked for his thoughts on the address, stating "there is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours" (p. 444).

Douglass was not the last African American whose presence at the White House sparked controversy. In 1901, Booker T. Washington (1856-1915)—the leading figure in black education at the time, and the founder of The Tuskegee Institute—published his autobiography, Up From Slavery. The book found a wide audience among both blacks and whites, and after its publication Washington was invited to dine at the White House by the then-President Theodore Roosevelt. News that an African American man had dined with the white President generated outrage; the reaction was particularly strong in the South. Reflecting on the visit in his My Larger Education (1911), Washington acknowledged the controversy but insisted that because the White House is not located in the South, he did not violate any local custom: "In the South it is not the custom for coloured and white people to be entertained at the same hotel; it is not the custom for black and white children to attend the same school. In most parts of the North a different custom prevails . . . Thus, in dining with President Roosevelt, there was no disposition on my part -- and I am sure there was no disposition on Mr. Roosevelt's part -- to attack any custom of the South" (p. 179). While Washington famously argued for the social separation of the races throughout his career, his dinner at the White House and his recollection of it in My Larger Education make it clear that he also saw interracial partnerships in business and politics as an ideal way to improve society.

Jennings, Douglass, and Washington are just three of the many African Americans who struggled against slavery and the social taboos of segregation in order to contribute to the workings—both day-to-day and political—of the residence of the most powerful elected official in this country. The obstacles they faced and the ground that they broke helps give historical perspective to the election of our first African American president.

All of the texts discussed in this article are part of DocSouth's North American Slave Narratives digital collection—a compilation of books, articles, and pamphlets that document the individual and collective stories of African Americans struggling for freedom and civil rights in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries.

Works Consulted: Douglass, Frederick, Autobiographies, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., ed., New York: Penguin Books, 1996; Douglass, Frederick, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself, Boston: De Wolfe & Fiske Co., 1892; Oakes, James, The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2008.

DocSouth Staff