Main Content

Rubenstein Center Scholarship

African Americans in the White House Timeline

The White House Historical Association has undertaken a research initiative called "Slavery in the President's Neighborhood." With this initiative, the Association seeks to tell the stories of the enslaved and free African Americans who built, lived, and worked at the White House, as well as the surrounding homes on Lafayette Park. While there are few written accounts of their experiences, their voices can be found in letters, newspapers, memoirs, census records, architecture, and oral histories. By connecting these details from diverse sources, the White House Historical Association seeks to return these individuals to the historical forefront, intertwining their stories with the lives of the presidents, first ladies, and first families.


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. Enslaved labor was used in every aspect of White House construction. Read More.


President Thomas Jefferson was the first known president to use enslaved labor at the White House. He brought three teenage women to the White House from Monticello to learn the art of French cooking—Ursula Granger Hughes, Edith Fossett, and Frances Hern. Jefferson also employed two enslaved men named Jack Shorter and John Freeman, along with a number of free African Americans and white servants. Read More.


James Madison and James Monroe both employed a mix of free and enslaved African Americans, as well as white staff members at the White House. Read More.


While it varied by administration, White House staff, both free and enslaved, often lived and worked in the basement. Read More.


President Andrew Jackson brought numerous enslaved people with him from Tennessee to the President’s House. His successor, Martin Van Buren, also relied on enslaved labor, as well as free African Americans and white workers in the Executive Mansion. Read more about about the enslaved households of Jackson and Van Buren.


John Tyler brought enslaved people to the White House and employed both free African Americans and white staff members. The Polks staffed the White House with enslaved labor that they brought from their home in Nashville, Tennessee, and hired out enslaved labor in Washington. James K. Polk also bought an additional thirteen enslaved children during his presidency. Read more about about the enslaved households of Tyler and Polk.


By the end of the 1850s, much of the White House staff was replaced with foreign laborers. James Buchanan preferred European domestics over African American and white American workers. Read More.


During the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, some of the domestic staff hired by James Buchanan remained while others came with the new president from Illinois. Joining them in the White House was William Slade, a free African-American man who served as usher and later rose to the position of steward during the Andrew Johnson administration. 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