The White House
From slavery to sit-ins.
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 Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Andrew Jackson and James Polk, brought enslaved domestics to the White House, where they almost always lived in basement rooms. These domestics were essential to running the White House. Paul Jennings, an enslaved domestic working in the Madison household would chronicle his time in the White House in his memoir. He also helped Dolley Madison rescue the Gilbert Stuart's famous "Lansdowne portrait" of George Washington and other the valuables before the British burned the White House in 1814. By the 1850s Paul Jennings was a free man and in the 1860s was a government employee at the pension office. On August 14, 1862, Abraham Lincoln received the first group of African American leaders to visit the executive mansion. Lincoln also met with Frederick Douglass and Sojourner 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.
On October 16, 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 and 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." Another guest of honor at the White House who caused a huge uproar was Jessie DePriest, the wife of Oscar DePriest of Illinois, who in 1928 became the first African American elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 30 years. Despite Jessie DePriest's grace and poise, many southerners objected to her presence at a White House tea hosted for the wives of congressmen. Lou Hoover also received immense criticism for her decision to invite Ms. DePriest. However, there was an outpouring of support from African American and northern newspapers who saw this simple act as an important measure of progress and the breaking of racial barriers. The Hoovers also hosted integrated garden parties for disabled veterans, which surprisingly caused little fanfare.
As the nation struggled with issues of segregation and discrimination, African American leaders including Mary McLeod Bethune, James Farmer, Dorothy Height, John Lewis, Martin Luther King, Jr. and A. Phillip Randolph, became advisors to the American Presidents.
In July 1955, E. Frederic Morrow officially assumed the position of Administrator of Special Projects on the staff of President Dwight Eisenhower and dealt with a tidal wave of change as the civil rights movement started.
In 1964, little more than 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. On March 11, 1965, following brutal attacks on demonstrators in Selma, Alabama four days earlier, 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.
The post-civil rights era saw more political appointments and greater access to the White House for African Americans as the joined as prominent members of the President's staff. Robert C. Weaver, a veteran of the civil rights movement and a former member of President Franklin Roosevelt's "Black Cabinet" (an informal group of African American public policy advisors), became the first secretary of housing and development in January 1966 and was the first African American to serve in a cabinet position.
Robert J. Brown, a White House staff member, worked closely with President Nixon to address racial inequities by strengthening anti-discriminatory laws and promoting historically black colleges and universities. During the administration of George W. Bush, Colin Powell became the first African American to become secretary of state and Condoleezza Rice and became the first African American woman to hold the position.
On January 20, 2009, Barack Obama became the first African American President and was re-elected in 2012. Desiree Rogers joined First Lady Michelle Obama's staff as first African American woman to be social secretary, and Angela Reid became the second African American to work as Chief Usher, after Rear Admiral Stephen Rochon's service as Chief Usher during the George W. Bush administration.