Main Content

Slavery and Freedom in the White House Collection: The White House Collection and the Atlantic World

This exhibit explores the history of slavery and emancipation in the United States through art, furnishings, chinaware, and other objects in the White House. This exhibit was curated by White House Historical Association historian Sarah Fling.

Materials used in Early American decorative arts were part of the commercial web of the Atlantic World—a term broadly used to explain the interconnection and exchange of people, raw materials, and goods between regions bordering the Atlantic Ocean (the Americas, Europe, and Africa) from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries.

Examples in the White House Collection can help us better understand enslaved labor in the Atlantic World, used for centuries to produce popular commodities and consumer goods such as sugar, mahogany, coffee, tobacco, ivory, and cotton.

This map of the Caribbean depicts European control of colonies in 1796.

British Library

By the mid-seventeenth century, the French, Dutch, Portuguese, English, and Spanish had colonized areas in the Americas to create plantations for cash crops. These were typically grown and harvested by enslaved laborers brought to the region from Africa via the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

Enslaved people worked in demanding and oftentimes dangerous conditions without pay to fell mahogany, harvest sugar cane, grow tobacco, and more. As demand for luxury spices, furnishings, and materials increased in Western Europe and North America, so did the use of enslaved labor. Many objects made from these materials have been preserved and are now in the collections of museums and historic sites around the world, including the White House.


Mahogany furniture can be found throughout America’s most famous historic homes. Europeans originally used the wood for shipbuilding and other construction projects, but as time wore on, the aesthetic beauty of mahogany led to its use in luxury goods and decorative arts.

Mahogany was primarily harvested by enslaved workers on the Caribbean islands of Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Cuba, and Jamaica, as well as Honduras.

Enslaved people felled trees, hauled logs, and prepared the wood for transport. Demand for mahogany tables, chairs, dressers, desks, and more, furthered the Transatlantic Slave Trade and contributed to rapid deforestation in the region. This popularity extended from Western Europe into British North America.

Depiction of workers felling mahogany.

Chronicle/Alamy Stock Photo


The Caribbean islands of Jamaica, Saint-Domingue (Haiti), Cuba, and Barbados provided ideal growing conditions for sugarcane and promised a lucrative return on investment. Sugar plantations were especially dangerous for enslaved laborers. Countless individuals died from tropical diseases, unsanitary living conditions, and sugar mill injuries.

Sugar was not only a culinary preference; it also came to represent social status, taste, and worldliness. Thanks to increased sugar production, it was no longer exclusive to the elite—average consumers could buy it at the market and add it to their morning tea or coffee, providing a taste of refinement each day. As a result, sugar bowls, spoons, and dishes appeared on Early American dining tables with greater frequency as part of a larger trend that connected many Americans to the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

Enslaved individuals on sugar plantations labored year-round, working in the fields during the planting and harvesting seasons and later in mills, boiling houses, and distilleries to create rum, molasses, and refined sugar for sale abroad, including Europe and its colonies. The images below depict enslaved workers harvesting and planting sugar cane in Antigua.