A north view of President Buchanan’s White House, 1859.
In the 1850s, African Americans were dismissed from the White House ranks, not to be seen again until after the Civil War. President James Buchanan’s household staff was entirely white. Buchanan specified that the new employees were to be British. He believed that people trained in the British system of domestic service would be less of a threat to his privacy and peace of mind. In his view, they were accustomed to big houses and loyalty was part of their ethic. Except for the butler, Pierre Vermereu, who was Belgian, all of the servants living under the Buchanan roof were from England, Ireland, and Wales. Some of these continued in service during Lincoln’s administration.
William Seale, The President’s House, White House Historical Association, 1986
One of the most famous African Americans to visit the White House during Lincoln’s term in office was Sojourner Truth. Library of Congress
During the Lincoln Administration some of Buchanan’s British-born domestic staff remained and other workers were brought from Illinois. There were no slaves as servants. Joining them in the White House, although she was not a member of the staff, was African American Elizabeth Keckley. She was a former slave and a talented seamstress who had bought her freedom and moved to Washington, D.C. where she established a dressmaking business. Keckley became Mary Todd Lincoln’s seamstress and eventually a close friend and confidante. In his office on January 1, 1863, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation as a war measure. That summer President Lincoln invited abolitionist Frederick Douglass to the White House to discuss emancipation and the recruitment and arming of black troops. On October 29, 1864, Lincoln met with Sojourner Truth, a fiery advocate of abolition and women’s rights. These political meetings were important precedents for blacks and influenced White House policy.
A notable African American to work at the White House in the 1860s was William Slade who had been a messenger in the Treasury Department. According to his daughter, Slade became Abraham Lincoln’s personal messenger and friend. By 1866, Slade, was a fixture at the White House, and became President Andrew Johnson’s steward. This federal official was in charge of the domestic management of the White House and responsible for the furnishings, silver, and other public property. Slade was the first official steward of the White House. It was a powerful and delicate position that called for the ability to communicate with politicians and officials as well as with the family and servants.
Read more: William Seale, The President’s House, White House Historical Association, 1986; William Seale, "Upstairs and Downstairs: The 19th-Century White House," American Visions, February-March, 1995, 16-20; Adele Logan Alexander, "White House Confidante of Mrs. Lincoln," American Visions, February-March, 1995, 18; and Elizabeth Keckley, Behind the Scenes or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House, Reprint edition. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Frederick Douglass, c. 1870. National Archives
Frederick Douglass was one of the foremost leaders of the abolitionist movement and advised Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War on issues related to emancipation and the treatment of black troops. In 1866, Douglass, at the head of a delegation, called on President Andrew Johnson in the East Room and appealed for his support to back voting rights for black men. Johnson refused to use his dwindling political capital to assist African Americans. In 1877 Rutherford B. Hayes made Douglass a marshal of the District of Columbia, but he would not allow him to present guests to the president, as had been the custom. However, Douglass did serve as the master of ceremonies when black entertainers performed at the White House. Douglass was appointed American consul general to Haiti in 1889. He was the most famous African American of the 19th century and is regarded as the father of the civil rights movement. Yet, no matter how famous or accomplished, many decades passed before blacks would be invited to the White House for social and state functions.
Read more: William Seale, The President’s House, White House Historical Association, 1986; Henry Chase, "Memorable Visitors: Classic White House Encounters," American Visions, February-March, 1995, 26-33.
Members of the White House domestic staff during the Hayes administration. Rutherford B. Hayes Library
For most of the 19th century, the structure of the White House staff remained generally the same. At the top was the steward, a federal employee who was bonded; the Congress created this position to safeguard the silver and furnishings in the house. The steward was on the government payroll. He functioned as the manager of the house. The job required patience, administrative ability, shrewdness as a purchasing agent, and a deep sense of discretion. Beneath him were the maids, footmen, cooks and laborers. About one-third of the servants lived in the White House in the basement rooms, some dormitory, some private. The steward dealt directly with each employee and there was no specific hierarchy. Most of the servants were southern blacks who had entered the president’s service after a similar experience in a hotel or private residence–or through a family connection, a brother, sister, parent, or aunt already there. The tone of the house was distinctly southern; the pace was slow, the relationships personal, and the social life characterized by comfortable elegance. It would be difficult to imagine the White House interior in the 19th century without the presence of African Americans, who performed a thousand duties.
Read more: William Seale, The President’s House, White House Historical Association, 1986; William Seale, "Upstairs and Downstairs: The 19th-Century White House," American Visions, February-March, 1995, 16-20.
Marie "Selika" Williams, 1877. Library of Congress
Beginning with James Buchanan’s administration in the 1850s, black entertainers have held a prime spot among White House performers. Their contribution to the musical history of the White House has been a rich and generally little known segment of American cultural life. A performance by Thomas Greene Bethune, "Blind Tom" created a sensation in 1859. Although blind and mentally retarded, he possessed extraordinary musical gifts and is said to have played like Beethoven, Gottschalk and Mozart. In 1878, diva Marie ("Selika") Williams appears to have been the earliest black artist to present a musical program at the White House. The Fisk Jubilee Singers introduced the "spiritual" as an American art form and came to the White House as part of a tour in 1882 that raised funds to benefit Fisk University. They became the first black choir to perform at the White House and their performance of "Safe in the Arms of Jesus," moved President Chester Arthur to tears. Another great performer was Sissieretta Jones (Black Patti), the daughter of a former slave, who sang opera arias and ballads for the Harrisons in 1892. A sensational vocalist, Jones received rave reviews and fame in a career that included performances at the White House for the Harrisons, McKinleys and Theodore Roosevelts. Black entertainers in the 19th century established a grand tradition of performance that evolved to embrace every variety of music–from opera to gospel and from jazz to symphonic.
Read More: Elise Kirk, "Black Performers: A Picture History," American Visions, February-March, 1995, 22-25; Elise Kirk, Musical Highlights from the White House, Krieger, 1992.
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