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Construction on the President’s House began in 1792 in Washington, D.C., a new capital situated in sparsely settled region far from a major population center. The decision to place the capital on land ceded by two slave states–Virginia and Maryland–ultimately influenced the acquisition of laborers to construct its public buildings. Read More


The White House is a large structure and from its earliest days domestic operations have demanded a general manager. For this purpose President Thomas Jefferson, through his two administrations, relied heavily on his French steward Etienne Lemaire. Read More


Paul Jennings, who was born a slave on President James Madison’s estate at Montpelier in 1799, was a "body servant" who attended the president until his death in 1836. Read More


The African American staff, and other servants, who lived at the President’s House, most often had rooms in the basement. Read More


President Andrew Jackson was a slaveholder who brought a large household of slave domestics with him from Tennessee to the President’s House. Many of them lived in the servant’s quarters, but the president’s body servant slept in the room with him. Read More


When John Adams moved into the White House in November 1800, one-third of the capital city’s population was black. Few of these African Americans were free. Read More


In the 1850s, African Americans were dismissed from the White House ranks, not to be seen again until after the Civil War. Read More


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. Read More


Frederick Douglass was one of the foremost leaders of the abolitionist movement and advised Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War on issues related to emancipation and the treatment of black troops. Read More


For most of the 19th century, the structure of the White House staff remained generally the same. Read More


Beginning with James Buchanan’s administration in the 1850s, black entertainers have held a prime spot among White House performers. Read More


Theodore Roosevelt became president after the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901. Read More


Civil Rights activist and journalist William Monroe Trotter caused a stir in 1914 because he strongly protested President Woodrow Wilson’s support for segregation of black federal employees in the workplace. Read More


Oscar De Priest’s election to Congress as a Republican representative from Chicago in 1928 created an interesting political and social dilemma for the White House. Read More


One of the most memorable performances in White House history was Marian Anderson’s rendition of Schubert’s "Ave Maria" as the culmination of a gala "Evening of American Music" presented by Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in 1939. Read More


Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball on April 15, 1947 signaling a historic step forward in the movement to end segregation. Read More


E. Frederic Morrow was the first African American to serve in an executive position on a president’s staff at the White House. Read More


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. 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. Read More


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. Read More


On August 10, 1989, President Bush announced his appointment of General Colin Powell as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Read More


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.

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


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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