For many visitors, walking through the White House almost feels like traveling back in time. Although the White House Collection contains objects that span the history of the United States, the Red, Blue, and Green Rooms are heavily influenced by nineteenth-century design styles. This has been the case since the 1960s, when the White House began a concerted effort to acquire and display impressive examples of American decorative and fine arts. Rather than limiting the collection to items owned or used by presidents, curators and first ladies in the 1960s and 1970s placed particular emphasis on late eighteenth and nineteenth-century pieces made by American artisans.
Paintings, furnishings, and décor items can tell stories that reach far beyond the walls of the White House. Because art does not exist in a vacuum, these objects are products of the economic ecosystems and cultural environments of the era in which they were created—a time when consumer goods were either directly or indirectly connected to slavery.
Objects reflect the economic, political, and cultural status of their owners, and embody ideas about race, class, and identity across time. As a result, they are windows into the lives of people: laborers who harvested raw materials, craftsmen and artisans making the finished products, buyers and sellers participating in consumer culture, even conservators, curators, and historians preserving them for future generations.
By peeling back the layers of history that make up White House art, sculpture, chinaware, and furnishings, this exhibit explores slavery’s direct and indirect influence on the ideas, movements, and people that shaped the creation of the United States, as well as the White House itself.
Slavery and Freedom in the White House Collection
The White House Collection and the Atlantic World
White House objects can help us better understand enslaved labor in the Atlantic World, used for centuries to produce popular commodities and consumer goods.
Pieces in the White House Collection illuminate the unsung role of enslaved artisans in early American fine and decorative arts.
Slavery at the White House
Explore the stories of enslaved workers at the White House through closer examination of several objects in the collection.
The Fight for Emancipation
The fight for emancipation throughout the antebellum era is also represented in the White House Collection.
This exhibit was curated by White House Historical Association historian Sarah Fling.