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A Mirror on America

A Mirror on America

For more than two centuries, the White House has depended on employees whose origins can be traced to many nations and cultures. Reflecting the racial and ethnic composition of the U.S. population, these employees have kept the White House running smoothly over the years.

Thomas Jefferson employed the Frenchmen Étienne Lemaire, Honoré Julien, and Jean Sioussat, as well as five Irish servants; John Quincy Adams retained Belgian Antoine Michel Giusta as a valet; Ulysses S. Grant engaged Sicilian Valentino Melah as White House steward; and William Howard Taft brought Filipino staff to the White House when he became president in 1909.

Some workers did not serve at the White House voluntarily. Except for George Washington, who never lived in the White House, all southern presidents who held office before 1860—Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, John Tyler, James Polk, and Zachary Taylor—owned slaves and brought some of them to the White House. Enslaved people worked alongside paid black freemen and European servants at the White House.

Between 1890 and 1940, several waves of African American migration from the South brought an influx of newcomers to the nation’s capital. Some found jobs at the White House and established decades-long careers at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.