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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.

Footnotes & Resources

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.

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