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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

The Slave Quarters at Decatur House

A History

  • Matthew Costello Chief Education Officer, The Marlyne Sexton Chair in White House History, Director of the David M. Rubenstein National Center for White House History

This article is part of the Slavery in the President’s Neighborhood initiative. Explore the Timeline

Nestled in the heart of Washington, D.C., Lafayette Park attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. From school groups to tourists, protesters to foreign dignitaries, many are drawn to the most prominent building on the square—the White House. Yet few fully realize just how much the neighborhood has changed since 1800, when President John Adams first moved into the unfinished Executive Mansion. Despite the many architectural and aesthetic alterations imposed upon this space, there are several historic structures still standing that date back to the early days of the nation’s capital. One of those buildings is Decatur House, located on the northwest corner of the park, and behind it sits the only surviving slave quarters within sight of the White House. Click here to learn more about the households of President John Adams.

Designed by renowned English architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the home was built in 1818-1819 for Commodore Stephen Decatur and his wife Susan. While there is little evidence to suggest that the Decaturs owned enslaved individuals in Washington, the new federal city sat on land ceded by two states that permitted slavery—Virginia and Maryland. As a result, local slave owners frequently contracted out the labor of their enslaved workers for construction projects and a wide of variety of domestic tasks. Enslaved and free African Americans may have built portions of the house and stables, and it is certainly possible that others were also hired out to work at Decatur House for its first occupants.1 One of the most unusual features of the house was Latrobe’s interior kitchen, as most Federal Period homes had kitchens behind the residence in a separate, detached building.2 He also designed a separate servants’ staircase that climbed upward from the cellar to the attic, connecting the kitchen, pantry, offices, and other service spaces.

This photograph shows Decatur House between 1918 and 1920. The attached service wing behind the house was used as a slave quarters for most of the antebellum period.

Library of Congress

The Decaturs’ residency was short-lived. Fourteen months after moving in, Stephen was mortally wounded by naval officer James Barron in a duel at Bladensburg, Maryland. He died on March 22, 1820, at the age of forty-one. Mrs. Decatur vacated the house shortly thereafter but secured a tenant the following year—Baron Hyde de Neuville, French Minister to the United States. Several years earlier, Latrobe suggested that if the Decaturs wished to rent the property to “a foreign Minister” in the future that they consider “the addition of a slight one story-room, for a servant’s hall.”3 Latrobe’s advice may have come to mind after Stephen’s death. In 1821-1822, Susan received a series of bills from her agent Colonel George Bomford on behalf of the French minister for work completed at Decatur House. Most significant of these was a receipt from Thomas Herbert dated January 9, 1822, amounting to $1,309.85 for “erecting the Back Buildings & finding materials for the same, connected with Mrs. Decatur’s House now occupied by the Minister of France."4

Like many other nineteenth-century homes on Lafayette Square, the service wing was built to house members of the domestic staff and their respective workspaces, while physically separating those who served from those who were served. Baron Hyde de Neuville and Baron de Tuyll, the Russian Minister to the United States who subsequently occupied the home, both used the service wing accordingly. While little is known about their servants, they likely would have brought men and women from their native countries with them, as was the custom at that time. They also may have hired out enslaved or free African Americans at Decatur House for specific tasks or large social functions.5

The service wing evolved into an urban slave quarters during the residency of Secretary of State Henry Clay. Between 1827 and 1829, Clay lived at the house with his wife Lucretia and their six children. Among those living in the slave quarters was the Dupuy family—Aaron, Charlotte, Mary Ann, and Charles. As Clay’s tenure as secretary of state was coming to an end, Charlotte sued Secretary Clay for her freedom in the U.S. Circuit Court of the District of Columbia in 1829. Dupuy claimed that her previous owner, James Condon, had promised to free her and her children but instead sold her to Clay. He then set out for Kentucky, but the court permitted Dupuy to stay at Decatur House until her case was resolved. In the meantime, she worked for the home’s next occupant, Martin Van Buren, the new secretary of state. According to the 1830 census, Van Buren hired out four enslaved women and two free African-American women to maintain the residence of the country’s highest-ranking diplomat. Dupuy eventually lost her court case, was transported to Alexandria, and then on to New Orleans where she was forced to work for Clay’s daughter, Ann Brown Clay Erwin. Nearly ten years later, Clay manumitted Dupuy and her daughter Mary Ann. Her son, Charles, was not freed until 1844.6 Click here to learn more about the enslaved households of President Martin Van Buren.

Map of Washington City, District of Columbia, seat of the federal government : respectfully dedicated to the Senate and the House of Representatives of the United States of North America. This map was created by Albert Boschke in 1857. Decatur House and the adjoined slave quarters can be seen along H Street, but it is also important to recognize that many homes on Lafayette Square and beyond had similar structures behind them.

Library of Congress

The next secretary of state, Edward Livingston, as well as the British Minister to the United States, Sir Charles Richard Vaughan, rented the residence for two years each but little is known about the makeup of their domestic staffs. As her financial woes worsened, Susan Decatur was forced to sell the property. In late 1836, John Gadsby acquired the home for $12,000.7 Gadsby’s wealth came from the commercial success of his Washington, D.C. lodging establishments—the Franklin House Hotel and the National Hotel. It was at these bustling places of business where Gadsby and others conducted all sorts of transactions—including the buying and selling of enslaved persons. He opened the National Hotel near Pennsylvania Avenue and Sixth Street in late 1826. Several years later, the census recorded thirty-nine enslaved individuals and four free African Americans working at Gadsby’s hotel.8 Newspaper advertisements published between 1825 and 1836 reveal that he constantly hired out and purchased African Americans. “I wish to purchase or hire, (but prefer the former) six active Servants, say from 18 to 35 years of age,” he requested. “Servants raised in the country, say in the State of Maryland, will be preferred.”9 By specifying his desire for enslaved labor from outside Washington, D.C., this subtle requirement within this particular listing was designed to sever familial and relational connections.

Hotels and their environs were the ideal place to acquire enslaved workers or meet people in the slave trade business. W. Robey announced in the Daily National Intelligencer that he wanted “50 negroes, of both sexes, from the age of 15 to 30 years,” and that interested parties could find him “on 7th street, near Maryland Avenue, or at Lloyd Pumphrey’s in the rear of Gadsby’s National Hotel.”10 John Lamar, who was staying at Gadsby’s Hotel, put out an advertisement for “a few house servants” to “be sent to Georgia,” specifically “a first-rate cook, a smart and likely waiting girl, from the age of ten to twenty, two likely and intelligent boys, and a body servant, for which the highest prices will be paid.”11 Another individual inquired about purchasing a “servant woman who is a good cook, washer, ironer, and house servant.” He also asked about “a boy, from 10 to 14, accustomed to the House.” His last sentence read, “Apply to J.F. at Gadsby’s Hotel, Washington.”12 Since the hospitality industry relied heavily on the labor of enslaved African Americans, the owners of these establishments were constantly looking to acquire new workers and replace others. At the same time, these businesses served as a venue where interested buyers could observe enslaved workers on the job before they were purchased.13

John Gadsby bought Decatur House as a retirement home, turning over the family business to his son, William.14 According to the 1840 census, there were ten enslaved people living at Decatur House, along with two free African-American men.15 Based on the documented ages, it appears likely that the King and Williams families made up most of this group.16 In only ten years’ time, the recorded enslaved individuals in John Gadsby’s household had decreased from thirty-nine to ten. Many factors contributed to this substantial decline of enslaved individuals. Some may have escaped bondage and disappeared; one such example is John Henry, a fifteen-year-old who absconded from the National Hotel in August 1834.17 Some may have been temporarily hired out to Gadsby on contract, and were returned to their owners afterwards. Others were likely still working at the National Hotel for William. There were also a few instances of enslaved individuals purchasing or receiving their freedom. In 1837, Gadsby manumitted Charity Matthews and her two children, Herbert and Susan Ann, after receiving $600 from Charity’s mother, Susan Ann Butler.18 A year later, an elderly enslaved man named Thomas Chin was “liberated by John Gadsby of Washington.”19 It is also possible that John Gadsby sold a fair number of these enslaved persons. Regardless of the means, as Gadsby settled into retirement he reduced the size of his domestic staff, a decision that coincided with the general decline of urban slavery in Washington as slave owners in the nation’s capital, Maryland, and Virginia began selling enslaved persons to meet the labor needs of large plantations in the Lower South.20

This photograph shows a list of enslaved individuals who were counted as part of the property inventories for John Gadsby in 1844.

White House Historical Association/National Archives

On May 15, 1844, Gadsby died at his residence in the President’s Neighborhood, leaving behind a considerable estate that included twenty-one enslaved individuals.21 While the King and Williams families, along with Rosa Marks and Nancy Syphax, accounted for fifteen persons, six others had come into the Gadsby household since 1840. John Gadsby’s property inventory included the following “slaves for life”: Ignatius Newton, Henry King, Maria King, Celia King, Charles King, Sarah Jane King, George King, Maria Williams, Martha Ann Williams, Mary Ellen Williams, James Williams, Kesiah (Keziah) Williams, Mary F. Williams, William Williams, Rosa Marks, Nancy Syphax, James (Joshua) Long, Susan Bell, Primus, Alto (Otto) Clark, and Charles Clark.22 It is likely that most of these twenty-one people lived in the Decatur House slave quarters at some point; but it is also possible that some stayed elsewhere or were hired out to work at other residences or establishments. Seventeen of the twenty-one people listed were bequeathed to Gadsby’s wife, Providence.23 The inventory of goods also reveals the general layout of the service wing. According to this document, the “Back Building” had three “Servants Room[s]”, each with a bedstead and bedding. There was a space specifically for laundry, complete with tubs, irons, and a stove; and the large kitchen featured cutlery, copper utensils, tables, a kettle, and tongs.24

In 1850, there were twelve enslaved individuals living in the slave quarters; by the time of Providence Gadsby’s death in 1858, there were sixteen.25 Comparing estate documentation for John and Providence, it appears that the King family remained relatively intact and added three members—Harry King, Jr., Marsha King, and Dick King. The Williams family, consisting of seven members in 1844, was reduced to three by 1858. All told, of the sixteen documented enslaved people living at Decatur House, eleven appear in both lists (and are bolded in the chart). Of the remaining five persons, three were new additions (born into slavery through their mother’s status); one may have married (Mary Frances Williams, now listed as Mary Frances Long); and one may have been purchased (Kym Long and James Long may have been related as they were close in age). At its peak, the slave quarters of Decatur House may have housed as many as twenty-one enslaved persons.26

This photograph shows a list of enslaved individuals who were counted as part of the property inventories for John Gadsby's wife Providence in 1858. While some of the household changed over the course of fourteen years, the King and Williams families remained relatively intact.

White House Historical Association/National Archives

On April 16, 1862, slavery was officially abolished in the nation’s capital, freeing some 3,000 African Americans. This legislation also offered slave owners up to $300 per slave as compensation for their loss of property.27 The submitted petitions provide some insight into the fates of ten enslaved individuals owned by the descendants of John and Providence Gadsby. Daughter Augusta Gadsby McBlair sought compensation for six enslaved individuals—Henry King, Maria King, Maria Williams, Nancy Syphax, George King, and Martha King. She described Henry as “a good carpenter, brick layer & general mechanic,” valuing him at $1,000. Maria King was “an excellent cook & laundress…valued at $800.” Maria Williams received a similar description and valuation. Nancy Syphax was “a good nurse, house servant and laundress,” estimated to be worth $800. George King was a “first class waiter and dining room servant,” worth $1,500. Martha was “a smart child, a good waiter and worth $500.” In total, Augusta McBlair requested $5,450 for the four members of the King family, Maria Williams, and Nancy Syphax; she received $1,489.20.28

Sister-in-law Mary Augusta Gadsby petitioned for restitution for James Williams. She described James as about nineteen years old with “black hair & eyes, thick lips, [a] gruff voice, and about five feet eight inches high.” He was “a first class waiter, a superior cook, & a thorough house servant and he has no mental, moral, or physical infirmity.” She insisted that he was worth $1,500, but only received $525.60.29 About three months later, Julia Ten Eyck, Providence Gadsby’s other surviving daughter, relinquished ownership of Celia King, Henry King, Jr., and Lewis Williams. She was represented by John Hollins McBlair, Augusta Gadsby McBlair’s husband. He testified on their behalf and watched as Celia, Henry, and Lewis received their certificates of freedom after signing the court proceedings with X’s next to their names.30 Based on the 1860 federal census, Augusta McBlair had owned twelve enslaved individuals but Celia, Henry, and Lewis may have been staying with the McBlair household and included in this count. There were also four recorded fugitives of the state at that time, two of whom may have been Dick King and Rosa Marks. Rosa’s absence must have been temporary, as she worked for the family after emancipation and was later buried in the Gadsby family vault at Congressional Cemetery.31

This petition was filed on behalf of Julia Ten Eyck, the daughter of John and Providence Gadsby. John Hollins McBlair, Julia's brother-in-law, verified the enslaved status of Celia King, Henry King, Jr., and Lewis Williams. These three individuals signed this document with an "X" next to each of their names in order to receive their certificates of freedom.

National Archives, Record Group 217

During the American Civil War, the federal government seized Decatur House and turned it into the Office of the Commissary General of Subsistence. On September 4, 1865, General Amos Beebe Easton wrote a letter to John Hollins McBlair, Augusta Gadsby’s husband and agent for the family, asking if changes could be made to the second floor of the slave quarters to better accommodate the officers and clerks who were living there.32 While there isn’t any indication that changes were actually made, this letter confirms that the upstairs of the service wing was primarily used as private quarters while the first floor was used for typical household functions during the war. While an enslaved person never set foot in the Decatur House service wing again, many free African Americans and immigrants lived there while working for General Edward Beale and his descendants well into the twentieth century. The last family to occupy the space was the Sclarandis family, who worked for Marie Beale but continued living in the slave quarters until 1962.33

This photograph was taken on January 21, 1937, by photographer John O. Brostrup for the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS). It shows the service wing, courtyard behind the house, and the back of Decatur House during Marie Beale's ownership of the property.

Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress

The first major architectural study of the house and service wing was completed in 1937 by the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS). According to these measured drawings, the use of the rooms changed little—two bedrooms, a bathroom, and an office were located on the second floor, while a dining quarters, kitchen, and laundry room were on the first floor. That same year, Washington, City and Capital was published as part of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration. The editors hoped that the book would be “generally accepted as a useful and interesting product…as well as a worthy contribution to the wider understanding and deeper appreciation of our National Capital.” This comprehensive history discussed Decatur House and its many occupants at various lengths, but it also included several mentions of John Gadsby’s activities in the slave trade:

For a brief but regrettable period, about 1844, John Gadsby leased the property and made the garden at the rear of the house into a slave market, protected from sight by an 8-foot brick wall on the south and an ell adjoining the house on the H Street side. The ell, a long one-story brick building, its windows barred with iron, was used as a corral for Negro slaves. That and the original garden wall still stand.34

This architectural rendering of the rear wing of Decatur House was completed in 1937 as part of the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS). The second floor was used primarily as a living quarters for Marie Beale's hired staff, while the first floor housed the kitchen, laundry, and dining quarters for household workers.

Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress

Another reference claimed that Gadsby “penned slaves in the attic, and in the long brick ell that still lines H Street behind the mansion proper.” “‘At night,’ says a contemporary, ‘you could hear their howls and cries.’ He conducted auction sales in the high-walled enclosure beside the mansion, and also shipped many slaves to Georgia.”35 Marie Beale, the last private owner of the house, repeated these references in her history of Decatur House but admitted that some of it might be “fanciful exaggeration.”36 While there is no documentation from John Gadsby’s time to verify these claims, there is likely some degree of truth to these statements. His buying and selling of enslaved people is irrefutable, and it is certainly possible that some of these transactions took place at Decatur House. It is also possible that the authors of Washington, City and Capital—upon learning that a notorious slave owner lived in the house—assumed that John Gadsby simply continued these dealings during his retirement.37

In 1956, Marie Beale bequeathed the property to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The National Trust oversaw a major renovation of the property, including the historic slave quarters, in 1965-1966. Most of the interior elements—walls, trim, plaster, and doors—were removed to make way for new offices, bathrooms, staircases, and additional storage. During the 1980s and 1990s, renovations to the first floor were made to accommodate retail operations, and the stucco exteriors were repaired periodically. In 2000-2002, the second floor was renovated into gallery space. New HVAC, fire alarm, and fire suppression systems were installed, along with an elevator and handicapped lift. The original wooden framing for the hallway along the north side was left exposed to better tell the stories of the enslaved men, women, and children who once inhabited the space.38

This photograph was taken during one of the renovations overseen by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress

In 2010, the White House Historical Association entered into an agreement with the National Trust to serve as the steward of the property. The Association commissioned a historic structures report of the slave quarters in 2011 and a dendrochronological report—also known as tree-ring dating—the following year. These historical and scientific studies helped solve one of the slave quarters’ longstanding mysteries—was the service wing originally built as a one or two-story structure? Some believed that the wing was only one-story, later expanded by John Gadsby. The discovery of an interior brick wall lined with windows and doors during the 1960s renovation along the south side of the first floor drove this theory. This wall, along with the large number of people John Gadsby owned, seemed to suggest that the wing had been expanded to the south with a second story added after the 1821-1822 construction. However, in May 2012, a dendrochronological analysis revealed that the original four-bay structure was built around 1821-1822, coinciding with the invoices and receipts sent to Susan Decatur. Samples taken from all three levels, including floor and ceiling joists, struts, and rafters, determined that many of the trees that were used in the construction fell sometime between 1810 and 1820. Some samples were even more precise, dating the wood to the winter of 1820-1821.39

While many residents and occupants have left their mark on historic Decatur House, the slave quarters represents a different thread of the American experience, one that has been historically ignored, deliberately concealed, or purposely stripped away. The building’s proximity to the White House is a powerful reminder of just how important slavery was to the creation and construction of our nation’s capital, as well as the President’s Neighborhood. The slave quarters also stands as a physical testament to those who struggled under the oppressive yoke of slavery; whether they liked it or not, this was their home.

While most of the interiors were removed in the 1960s, the chimneys and wooden framing of the hallway on the second floor remain visible today.

Matthew Costello, White House Historical Association

Thanks to Katherine Malone France, Chief Preservation Officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and Liz Williams, Director of Gadsby's Tavern and Museum, for their contributions to this article.