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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

From the White House to Freedom on the Underground Railroad

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

First published in 1872, William Still’s The Underground Rail Road drew on the author’s personal experience working with the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society in order to present an engaging, authentic account of the journey from slavery to freedom. Using interviews and personal recollections, Still profiled hundreds of escaped slaves and the abolitionists who helped them along the way. The son of escaped slaves himself, Still understood the importance of documenting these stories and was scrupulous about their accuracy and authenticity.1 One of the people he wrote about, James Hambleton Christian, had been enslaved in the household of President John Tyler and served in the White House before making his escape. Click here to learn more about the enslaved households of President John Tyler.

William Still, abolitionist and author of The Underground Rail Road: A Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters, &c., Narrating the Hardships, Hairbreadth Escapes and Death Struggles of the Slaves in their Efforts for Freedom.

Wikimedia Commons

James was born into slavery on the plantation of Robert Christian, the father of future First Lady Letitia Christian Tyler, and during his lifetime served several different members of the Christian family. The Christians were wealthy and held significant political influence in Virginia. James waited on young James B. Christian at the College of William and Mary, where “through the kindness of the students he picked up a trifling amount of book learning.”2 After Robert Christian died, James was passed to another one of Robert’s sons, and finally to Letitia, who by that time was married to John Tyler. James’ time with the Tylers ultimately led him to the White House. Finally, sometime after Letitia Tyler’s death in 1842, James Hambleton Christian was moved again, this time to the household of her nephew William H. Christian, who was a merchant in Richmond, Virginia. While he claimed he was always comfortable and well-treated, James was repeatedly moved from place to place with no say in where he was sent next.

James Christian held a favored place in both the Christian and Tyler households, and during John Tyler’s presidency he was brought to the White House to serve as a member of the domestic staff. He admitted that his duties had not been especially difficult. He had good food, good clothing, relatively light work, and plenty of leisure time. "I have always been treated well; if I only have half as good times in the North as I have had in the South, I shall be perfectly satisfied,” he claimed.3 However, as the rest of his narrative indicates, no amount of earthly luxuries could compensate for being enslaved.

This is an heirloom portrait of Letitia Christian Tyler, President John Tyler's first wife. She died in 1842, the first "first lady" to pass away in the White House.

John Tyler Griffin, great-great grandson of Letitia and President Tyler

James Christian’s treatment had more to do with his own relation to the family than with Tyler’s approach to slave ownership. James told William Still that his first master Robert Christian was also his father, which was not uncommon. Letitia Christian Tyler and her brothers, who sent James back and forth after their father died, were in fact his half-siblings. Still claimed that James’ relationship to the family “was visible in his features [and] his hair, which gave him no inconsiderable claim to sympathy and care.”4 Because of his lighter skin tone and “Anglo-Saxon” features, he was assigned to lighter labor and mostly worked in the household rather than in the fields.

According to anthropologist Nina Jablonski, James’ experience was not unusual. Slave owners often ascribed higher social status to enslaved people with lighter skin. These individuals were associated with “refinement and educability” because they looked more like their white owners than fellow enslaved individuals with darker skin. The desire to have their most “refined” enslaved people working in the house, along with perhaps some sympathy for those who were their family by blood, led many slave owners to give men like James Christian the kind of duties and privileges he described.5

Many pro-slavery advocates used African-American men like Christian to promote a false image of happy, well-treated enslaved people, and President Tyler himself took pride in his reputation as a reasonable slave owner. One northern visitor to his Sherwood Forest plantation reportedly claimed that the enslaved community there was “uniformly cheerful and happy.”6 Christian refused to support this myth. He was candid in his assessment of President Tyler. “I didn’t like Mr. Tyler much,” he told Still and his fellow abolitionists. “On the plantation, Tyler was a very cross man, and treated the servants very cruelly.” Although he and the other “house servants” were not subjected to the same mistreatment, they still noticed it, and judged the president accordingly.7 And ultimately, not even the kindest, most indulgent treatment would make anyone want to spend their life in slavery, unable to control their own destiny.

George Peter Alexander Healy's 1859 portrait of President John Tyler. Tyler became president after the unexpected death of President William Henry Harrison on April 4, 1841.

The White House Historical Association (White House Collection)

In the end, James Christian decided he was willing to take the risk of fleeing Virginia to try to escape slavery. He was by this time living with William H. Christian in Richmond and had fallen in love with a free woman there, but because of his enslaved status he could not marry her. Worse, he could have been sold at any moment and sent so far away from Richmond that he would never see her again. He decided to flee to Canada, where he thought he might have a better chance to reunite with the woman he loved. William Still and his associates spoke to Christian when he passed through Philadelphia on his way north. Unfortunately, Still’s book is the only published documentation of James Hambleton Christian’s life, so we have no information about what happened to this former White House resident after he left Philadelphia. We can only hope, as the men assisting him did, that he achieved “the blessings of liberty and a free wife in Canada.”8