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Frederic Morrow with President Eisenhower.

Frederic Morrow with President Eisenhower. Eisenhower Library

E. Frederic Morrow was the first African American to serve in an executive position on a president’s staff at the White House. Morrow was a minister’s son who had graduated from Bowdoin College and was employed by the National Urban League and the NAACP before entering Army service during World War II. After the war, he obtained a law degree from Rutgers University and worked for the public affairs division at CBS. He was an adviser on business affairs in the Commerce Department before joining Eisenhower’s staff as Administrative Officer for Special Projects from 1955 to 1961. As the sole African American on a staff dealing with racial tensions related to integration, Morrow faced difficult personal and professional struggles at the White House. The Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. the Board of Education ruling, the Montgomery bus boycott, and the Little Rock crisis were the backdrop for Morrow’s White House years. On a staff with a civil-rights policy that was at best cautious, Morrow was often frustrated and angered. He lived at a time when qualified African Americans were excluded from high-level political positions. Morrow as a black "first" found relations within the president’s "official family" to be "correct in conduct, but cold." He published his autobiography, Black Man in the White House, in 1963 leaving a valuable account of his experience as a black man working in the president’s inner circle, including his disappointment with the indecision of Eisenhower’s civil rights policy.

E. Frederic Morrow, Black Man in the White House, Coward-McCann, 1963

Lyndon B. Johnson signs the 1964 Civil Rights Bill.

Lyndon B. Johnson signs the 1964 Civil Rights Bill. Library of Congress

A master of the art of practical politics, Lyndon Johnson came into the White House after the tragedy of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. He was energetic, shrewd, and hugely ambitious. Clifford Alexander, Jr., deputy counsel to the president and an African American, remembered President Johnson as a larger-than-life figure who was a tough but fair taskmaster. His legislative program "had such a positive effect on black Americans [it] was breathtaking when compared to the miniscule efforts of the past." The cornerstones of that program were the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Civil rights leaders from across America led by Martin Luther King, Jr. gathered in the East Room of the White House to witness the signing of the Civil Rights Act that signified a major victory in the struggle for racial equality to which they had dedicated their lives. President Johnson also made two political appointments–Robert Weaver as secretary of Housing and Urban Development and Thurgood Marshall as associate Supreme Court justice. For the first time African Americans had positions in the Cabinet and on the Supreme Court. President Johnson appointed more black judges than any president before him and opened the White House not only to black athletes and performers but also to black religious, civic and political leaders in significant numbers. Johnson saw his place in history as being directly related to the improvement of race relations in America and according to Alexander "he was a huge success."

Read more: Clifford Alexander, Jr., "Black Memoirs of the White House--LBJ," American Visions, February-March, 1995, 42-43.

President Nixon meets with black college presidents.

President Nixon meets with black college presidents. National Archives

During his tenure in office President Nixon steered a middle course in domestic affairs and did not attempt to dismantle Johnson’s programs but strived to make them more efficient. Robert J. Brown was an African American member of Nixon’s White House staff who was looked to as liaison to the black community. He dealt with issues related to civil rights legislation, funding for jobs, black colleges and inner-city housing. Racial tensions were high in 1970, as blacks became frustrated with economic conditions that did not improve despite advancements in civil rights. The Nixon administration addressed the underlying problems of bigotry and economic empowerment by putting teeth in anti-discriminatory laws, boosting the budget of civil rights enforcement, and sponsoring minority business initiatives. Brown recalled that one of his priorities as a Nixon staffer was to promote black colleges. He arranged a series of meetings between Nixon and black college presidents, "knowing that the president saw education as a great equalizer." President Nixon doubled aid to black colleges and issued an executive order denying tax deductions for contributions to segregated schools. John Calhoun, a black special assistant to President Ford, would continue this concern for the status and funding of black colleges. He strongly supported the Ford administration’s efforts to renew the Voting Rights Act and to improve the funding and research capabilities of black colleges. President Ford backed Calhoun’s efforts to reach out and to work with African American members and staffers on Capitol Hill. Calhoun held monthly luncheon meetings. This outreach program and Calhoun’s access to the president was significant to shaping decisions concerning busing, school desegregation and voting rights.

Read more: Robert J. Brown "Black Memoirs of the White House--Nixon," 44-45 and John Calhoun, "Black Memoirs of the White House--Ford," American Visions, February-March, 1995, 46-47.

President Bush announces his appointment of General Colin Powell as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

President Bush announces his appointment of General Colin Powell as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Bush Presidential Library

On August 10, 1989, President Bush announced his appointment of General Colin Powell as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Powell became the architect of Operation Desert Shield, a staging operation that moved American and international forces and materials to the Middle East to launch Operation Desert Storm. As President Bush’s trusted advisor, Powell helped shape a global alliance that executed the most intricate and high-tech military campaign in history. This operation reversed the invasion of Kuwait and defeated the Iraqi army. Powell served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff until 1993. He had been a White House Fellow in 1972, worked as an executive assistant in the Energy and Defense departments during the Carter administration, served as senior military assistant to Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger, and was President Reagan’s National Security Advisor from 1987 to 1989. Powell, a son of Jamaican immigrants, was born on April 5, 1937, in Harlem, New York. He attended the public schools of New York and graduated from the City College of New York in 1958. While at the college he joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps and received a commission as second lieutenant upon graduation. After basic training at Fort Benning , Georgia, he embarked on a military career that took him to operational and command assignments in the United States, Germany, Vietnam, and Korea and culminated in his appointment as the first black officer to hold the nation’s highest military post.

The White House residence staff in 1981.

The White House residence staff in 1981.

Over the 20th century hundreds of people have worked behind the scenes at the White House preparing family meals, serving elaborate State Dinners, tending the grounds and welcoming visitors. Today, a household staff of approximately 90 full-time domestic and maintenance employees–including butlers, maids, engineers, housemen, chefs, electricians, florists, ushers, doormen, carpenters and plumbers–work together under one roof to operate, maintain and preserve the 132-room residence. Many of these workers are African Americans who have spent decades employed at the White House. For example, Lillian Rogers Parks (seamstress/maid 1929-1961) first came to the White House as a young girl helping her mother, a White House maid, during the Taft administration. She and other longtime workers, such as Alonzo Fields (butler and maitre d’ 1931-1962), Preston Bruce (doorman 1953-1976), and Eugene Allen (chief butler and maitre d’ 1952-1987), have been an integral part of and helped define the culture of the White House. They served the White House and represented the nation through their labor as seamstress and maid, butlers or maitre’d with dignity, wisdom and pride. Alonzo Fields, a butler and maitre’d at the White House for 21 years, eloquently observed: " I didn’t feel like a servant to a man. I felt I was a servant to my government, to my country."

The year 2000 marks the 200th anniversary of both life and work at the White House. The integral role of African Americans at the White House at every level, both on the domestic and political staffs, will continue to shape the creation and cultivation of one of American democracy's greatest symbols.

Read More: Workers at the White House, Center for Folklife Programs and Cultural Studies, Smithsonian Institution, 1992.

President Barack Obama makes a phone call in the Oval Office, Jan. 30, 2009.

President Barack Obama makes a phone call in the Oval Office, Jan. 30, 2009. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

President George W. Bush selected prominent African Americans to fill key positions in his cabinet and administration. Colin L. Powell was nominated and confirmed as the Secretary of State and Rod Paige became the Secretary of Education. Dr. Condoleezza Rice was appointed as the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs. Powell and Rice have played vital roles in advising the president on foreign policy and security following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

On November 4, 2008, Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. In February 2009 the Harvard Gazette noted, “It was just over two weeks ago in Washington, D.C., that the United States crossed a historic racial divide to inaugurate Obama as its first African-American president.” Professor David King, expert on elections and a lecturer in public policy at Harvard (where President Obama earned his law degree), “ranked Obama’s election . . . with just a handful of watershed presidencies : . . . Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”

Source: Alvin Powell, Harvard Gazette, February 5, 2009

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