Main Content

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 likely autistic, 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.