Slavery was ingrained into Washington, D.C. society from its inception. Set between two slave states—Virginia and Maryland—enslaved people built the capital’s most iconic structures, were sold and traded inside city limits, and lived and worked in households and businesses throughout the District.
At the White House, enslaved laborers were essential to the initial construction of the building in the 1790s, as well as subsequent construction projects throughout the first several decades of the nineteenth century. Moreover, enslaved men, women, and children served as members of the White House domestic staff for many administrations leading up to the Civil War. According to surviving documentation, at least nine presidents brought, hired out, or relied on enslaved individuals to work at the White House in roles such as valets, butlers, maids, nurses, and more. The stories of their lives come to light through closer examination of several objects in the White House Collection.
Building the White House
The initial construction of the White House (1792-1800) as well as subsequent re-construction and renovation projects in the decades that followed, relied on free and enslaved workers who made bricks, felled wood, quarried stone, assembled exteriors, landscaped grounds, and more.
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1800 Map of L'Enfant Plan for Washington, D.C., 1795
The 1795 map of the District of Columbia seen here is based upon Pierre (Peter) Charles L’Enfant’s plan for the city of Washington. The selection of this site for the nation’s capital was directly tied to slavery. While northerner Alexander Hamilton hoped to permanently place the capital in Philadelphia or New York, southerners Thomas Jefferson and James Madison wanted a capital on the Potomac River, where they could maintain plantation-based slavery and as a result, their economic power. George Washington also favored this location, which was close in proximity to his Mount Vernon plantation in Northern Virginia.
In the end, Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison agreed to the Compromise of 1790: the capital would permanently move to the banks of the Potomac in exchange for the federal assumption of individual states’ war debts from the Revolutionary War. The placement of the capital between the two slave states of Maryland and Virginia meant that slavery was ingrained into the District of Columbia for the next seventy years.White House Collection/White House Historical Association
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James Hoban, ca. 1800
Attributed to John Christian Rauschner (1760-?)
Wax bas-relief on glass
This wax bas-relief on glass portrait depicts James Hoban, Irish-born architect of the White House. Hoban was himself a slave owner; in May 1795, four men enslaved by James Hoban—Peter, Ben, Harry, and Daniel—are listed as working on the President’s House. Hoban continued to own and sell enslaved people for the rest of his life.White House Collection/White House Historical Association
The image below shows original building bricks from the White House, now in the collection at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Brick-making was one of the tasks involving enslaved laborers during the construction of the White House in the 1790s.
Enslaved Labor in the White House
Enslaved people made up a critical part of the White House staff prior to the Civil War. According to surviving documentation, at least nine presidents brought, hired out, or relied on enslaved individuals to work at the White House: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, James K. Polk, and Zachary Taylor. Enslaved people served in a variety of roles, from maids and valets to cooks and footmen, making White House events and daily household maintenance possible.
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George Washington, 1797
Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828)
Oil on Canvas
This painting of George Washington by portraitist Gilbert Stuart is one of the most famous pieces in the White House Collection—but it was almost destroyed when British troops burned the White House in 1814. Although Dolley Madison often receives credit for saving the portrait, her enslaved servant Paul Jennings tells a different story. In his memoir, A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison—considered the first White House staff memoir—Jennings explained that although Mrs. Madison ordered the painting’s removal, staff members including Steward Jean-Pierre Sioussat and Gardener Thomas McGraw (sometimes called McGrath) actually saved the portrait, breaking the painting from the frame and saving the canvas. Jennings’ memoir provides insight into the presence of enslaved and free workers at one of the most important moments in White House history.White House Collection/White House Historical Association
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Silver Trunk, ca. 1817
J. P. Shriner & Co.
Wood and Brass
Many early presidential households relied upon enslaved butlers, waiters, and cooks. Silver cutlery and other pieces of tableware may have been handled, cleaned, and cared for by enslaved workers owned by different presidents. The use of silver trunks not only protected these pieces from dirt and dust while not in use—it also kept them away from anyone who might steal the valuables inside. An 1844 newspaper article chronicles the robbery of “silver table and teaspoons” at the White House, implicating a “colored servant belonging to” President John Tyler and another Black servant named Mary Murphy. Theft was a form of resistance for enslaved people, as extra income could be used to purchase food, tools, or even passage to freedom. These actions were risky. If caught, it could lead to punishment. In the case of John Tyler’s servants, it does not appear that Mary or the unnamed servant were charged with a crime, but they may have been punished in other ways.White House Historical Association
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Dressing Chest of Drawers, ca. 1865-1870
Rosewood, rosewood veneer/oak, pine, tulip poplar; mirror glass; brass
Mirrors are not only decorative items. They also provide a way to see oneself, often serving a role in morning routines such as getting dressed, shaving, or applying makeup. This dressing chest with a mirror likely came to the White House during the presidency of Andrew Johnson, but Johnson’s appearance was not solely his own responsibility. William Andrew Johnson, born into slavery in the Johnson household, served as President Johnson’s valet for many years.
Valets serve a critical and intimate role in the White House, caring for a president’s wardrobe, assisting with shaving and other grooming routines, traveling with the president, and providing any other assistance as needed. Although Andrew and Eliza Johnson emancipated William and the other enslaved servants they held in bondage before President Lincoln’s assassination, William continued to work in their household, coming to the White House with him in 1865.White House Historical Association
The gallery below includes images and written evidence of Paul Jennings, unnamed enslaved people in John Tyler’s White House, and William Johnson. Learn more about their stories in the captions.