The White House
Photograph of demonstrators in front of the White House protesting the jailing of the Scottsboro boys in 1933.
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To imagine what it was like here when the White House was being constructed in the 1790s, erase everything else you see now on and around Lafayette Square. The park was a field—muddy or dusty, depending on the weather. Enslaved workers who were building the White House were housed in temporary shelters—each about 10 feet wide and 10 feet long—lined up in rows on the east and west sides of the field. Like so many buildings in early Washington, the President's House would have been very difficult to construct without enslaved labor, as the city was very sparsely populated and workers were in great demand.
Some early Presidents including Jefferson, Jackson, and Polk brought slaves to the White House, where they almost always lived in basement rooms. In the summer of 1862, Abraham Lincoln received the first group of African American leaders to visit the executive mansion. Lincoln also met with Frederick Douglass and Sojurner Truth during his time in office.
Elizabeth Hobbes Keckly, a former slave who had become a successful businesswoman in Washington and the dressmaker and confidante of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, also spent time in the White House during the Lincoln Presidency. Keckly described her experiences in an 1868 memoir Behind the Scenes: Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House.
African Americans also came to the White House as artists and musicians. Ten-year old piano prodigy and composer Thomas Greene Bethune is believed to have been the first African American artist to perform at the White House when he played for President James Buchanan in 1860. The Fisk University Jubilee Singers were the first African American choir to sing at the White House, performing for President Chester A. Arthur in February 1882. Their program included "Safe in the Arms of Jesus," which newspaper accounts said brought the President to tears.
In 1901, Booker T. Washington was the first African-American invited to dine with a President at the White House, but racial segregation was also a part of life in the White House well into the 20th century. Alonzo Fields, who worked in the White House from 1931 to 1952, experienced it first hand. In an oral history project produced by the Smithsonian Center for Folklife & Cultural Heritage called Workers at the White House, Fields commented on what this was like.
He noted, "They had separate dining rooms – Black and White. We all worked together, but we couldn't eat together… Here in the White House, I'm working for the President. This is the home of the democracy of the world and I'm good enough to handle the President's food – to handle the President's food and do everything – but I cannot eat with the help."
As the nation struggled with issues of segregation and discrimination, African Americans leaders including Mary McLeod Bethune, James Farmer, Dorothy Height, John Lewis, Martin Luther King, Jr., and A. Phillip Randolph, visited the White House to advise American Presidents. In 1964, almost exactly a century after Lincoln received the first group of African Americans visitors to the White House, Martin Luther King, Jr. and other African American leaders came to the White House to see President Lyndon Johnson sign the Civil Rights Act guaranteeing equal access to public places and outlawing discrimination.
The 1960s also saw important civil rights protests in and around Lafayette Square. After the brutal attacks on demonstrators in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965, protestors stopped traffic in front of the White House by lying down across Pennsylvania Avenue and at least two small sit-ins by protestors took place inside the White House.
|Andrew Jackson Statue, Lafayette Square||A slave helps craft this statue and the Capitol's statue of freedom...|
|Dolley Madison's House||A former slave shows charity toward an impoverished First Lady.|
|St John's Church||Free and enslaved African Americans are married and baptized at the President's parish...|
|Weddings at St. John's Church||Selected entries from the St. John's Church marriage register.|
|Daniel Webster's House||A slave plans a daring escape, but has a change of heart...|
|Decatur House||Where Charlotte Dupuy takes a brave stand against slavery.|
|Ewell House||Buying, selling, and resisting.|
|Charlotte Dupuy||Charlotte Dupuy, an enslaved woman who sued her owner Henry Clay for her freedom.|
|Lafayette Square||An enslaved woman buys her freedom and changes the nation's history....|
|Elizabeth Keckly (1818-1907)||Elizabeth Keckly was born into slavery in 1818. She went on to purchase her own freedom and establish a successful dressmaking business.|
|Frederick Douglass||Revered African American leader.|
|Members of Gadsby's Enslaved Household||A list of their names and ages.|
|Paul Jennings||Paul Jennings|
|Tayloe House||Compensated emancipation, only in DC...|
|Decatur House Slave Quarters||Men, women, and children from two families living together in 900 square feet...|
|Emancipation in the President's Neighborhood, 1850||Emancipation in the President's Neighborhood, 1850|
|"Negro Life at the South"||A 1859 painting by Eastman Johnson depicting urban slavery.|
|"Mrs. Madison's Slaves Again"||1848 Newspaper article about the Madison's slaves.|
|"The Negro Celebration in Washington"||1866 article and engraving about Emancipation Celebration in Washington, DC and President Johnson's address.|
|President's House Carpenters' Roll from May 1795||Payment record for carpenters,including five enslaved men, who constructed the President's House.|
|Emancipation Day in Washington, D.C.||Emancipation Day in Washington, D.C.|
|Bill of Sale for Charlotte Dupuy to Henry Clay||Bill of Sale for Charlotte Dupuy from James Condon to Henry Clay.|
|Bill of Sale for Paul Jennings from Dolley Madison to Pollard Webb||Document recording Dolley Madison's 1847 sale of Paul Jennings to Pollard Webb.|
|Charlotte Dupuy's Petition||Letter written by Robert Beale on behalf of Charlotte Dupuy petitioning the Judges to summon Henry Clay to court.|
|Decatur House Slave Quarters Floor Plans||Floorplans and architectural drawings of the Decatur House slave quarters.|
|Thomas Greene Bethune [Wiggins], 1849 -1908||Photograph of blind piano prodigy Thomas Greene Bethune, the first African American artist to perform at the White House.|
|Emancipation in the District of Columbia - List of the Petitions Filed||Government document showing claims paid for emancipated slaves to the former owners.|
|First page of a letter from Henry Clay to his agent in Washington, Philip Fendall, regarding Charlotte Dupuy's petition for freedom||Letter written written by Henry Clay to his agent in Washington, Philip Fendall, regarding Charlotte Dupuy's bid for freedom.|
|Gadsby Slave Quarters at Decatur House ca.1937||Photograph taken by Volkmar Wentzel in 1937 showing the H Street side of the slave quarters at Decatur House.|