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Slavery in the President's Neighborhood

Many people think of the White House as a symbol of democracy, but it also embodies America’s complicated past and the paradoxical relationship between slavery and freedom in the nation’s capital.

While there are few written accounts of the enslaved and free African Americans who built, lived, and worked at the White House, their voices can be found in letters, newspapers, memoirs, census records, architecture, and oral histories.

By connecting these details from diverse sources, the White House Historical Association seeks to return these individuals to the historical forefront.

  1. Slavery Before the White House

    Tracing the stories of the indigenous and enslaved peoples who lived in the Potomac Valley prior to the construction of the Federal City.

    Read more about Slavery Before the White House
  2. "20. and odd Negroes" brought to Jamestown.

    slavery comes to the colonies

  3. Massachusetts became the first colony to recognize slavery as a legal institution.

  4. The first cargo ship with thirteen Africans arrived to the Maryland colony.

  5. Seven Years War

  6. The Revolutionary War

  7. Declaration of Independence adopted by the Second Continental Congress.

  8. Three-Fifths Compromise

  9. Constitution signed at the Constitutional Convention.

  10. The Enslaved Households of President George Washington

    The enslaved people working in George Washington’s presidential households in New York and Philadelphia were separated from their families at Mount Vernon.

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  11. The Residence Act, establishing the District of Columbia, was passed by Congress and signed into law by President George Washington.

  12. The Remarkable Story of Ona Judge

    Ona, an enslaved housemaid to Martha Washington, escaped after seven years.

    Read more about The Remarkable Story of Ona Judge
  13. The Complexities of Slavery in the Nation's Capital

    The city’s placement along the Potomac River, in between the slave states of Maryland and Virginia, ensured that slavery was ingrained into every aspect of life.

    Read more about The Complexities of Slavery in the Nation's Capital
  14. Self-liberated slaves initiated the Haitian Revolution.

  15. Benjamin Banneker: Surveyor

    The black tobacco farmer who the presidents couldn't ignore.

    Read more about Benjamin Banneker: Surveyor
  16. "I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves."

    first lady michelle obama

  17. Building the White House

    Enslaved people were involved in every aspect of White House construction—from the quarrying of stone, to the cutting of timbers, to the production of bricks, to the physical labor of assembling its roof and walls.

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  18. Congress enacted the Fugitive Slave Act.

  19. “the Female I have none, but those I brought with me, except a Negro woman who is wholy with the Cook in the kitchin, and I am happy in not having any occasion for any others for a very sad set of creatures they are.”

    First Lady Abigail Adams

  20. The Households of President John Adams

    While President John Adams and First Lady Abigail Adams opposed the institution of slavery, they may have relied on enslaved labor in the president’s house.

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  21. Gabriel's Rebellion

  22. John Adams became the first president to move into the White House.

  23. The Enslaved Households of President Thomas Jefferson

    Thomas Jefferson owned over 600 enslaved people during his lifetime, the most of any U.S. president. The enslaved individuals working for Jefferson accompanied him during each phase of his career, including his time at the White House.

    Read more about The Enslaved Households of President Thomas Jefferson
  24. Slavery and French Cuisine in the Jefferson White House

    Thomas Jefferson employed French chefs to train enslaved members of the Monticello community in the delicate art of French cookery.

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  25. A law banning the African slave trade went into effect in the United States.

  26. The Enslaved Households of President James Madison

    The Madisons brought enslaved people from Montpelier and also hired additional enslaved individuals in D.C., paying wages directly to the slave owners.

    Read more about The Enslaved Households of President James Madison
  27. Paul Jennings: Slave, Freedman, and White House Memoirist

    After serving as an enslaved valet in Madison’s White House, Jennings went on to write the first White House memoir, "A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison."

    Read more about Paul Jennings: Slave, Freedman, and White House Memoirist
  28. The War of 1812

  29. Slavery, Freedom, and the Struggle to Keep a Family Together

    John Freeman, an enslaved man working in the Jefferson White House, fell in love with Melinda Colbert, an enslaved woman in the household of the president's daughter.

    Read more about Slavery, Freedom, and the Struggle to Keep a Family Together
  30. British troops entered Washington, D.C. and set fire to the White House, Capitol Building, Treasury, and the executive offices.

  31. Slavery at Octagon House

    After the White House burned, the Madisons moved the presidential household to Octagon House, living there for six months. The home’s owner and one of Virginia’s largest slave owners, John Tayloe, also used enslaved labor at Octagon House.

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  32. Construction began on the White House rebuild.

  33. The American Colonization Society

    In 1816, a group of white elites formed the American Colonization Society to send free African Americans to live in the new African colony of Liberia.

  34. The Enslaved Households of President James Monroe

    James Monroe owned more than 200 enslaved people during his lifetime. The enslaved individuals working for Monroe accompanied him during each phase of his career, including his time at the White House.

    Read more about The Enslaved Households of President James Monroe
  35. Enslaved Workers on the White House Grounds

    In 1818, during the presidency of James Monroe, congressional appropriations designated money for landscaping and maintenance work on the White House Grounds. Enslaved labor was used for these projects.

  36. Congress passed the Missouri Compromise.

  37. William Costin

    A free African-American activist and scholar who successfully challenged Black Codes in the Circuit Court of the District of Columbia.

    Read more about William Costin
  38. The Enslaved Households of President John Quincy Adams

    John Quincy Adams is remembered for his antislavery positions in Congress, but enslaved people lived in the White House while he was President of the United States.

    Read more about The Enslaved Households of President John Quincy Adams
  39. Enslaved Virginians sparked the deadliest revolt in U.S. history in Nat Turner’s Rebellion.

  40. The Enslaved Households of President Andrew Jackson

    President Jackson sought a balance between authority and kindness, punishment and forbearance. Like many slave owners, Jackson did not always live up to his stated ideals.

    Read more about The Enslaved Households of President Andrew Jackson
  41. The Slave Quarters at Decatur House

    Secretary of State Henry Clay was the first occupant to bring enslaved people to Decatur House.

    Read more about The Slave Quarters at Decatur House
  42. Gracy Bradley’s White House

    Andrew Jackson gave his son’s bride a wedding present—an enslaved woman named Gracy Bradley. Bradley worked in the White House before returning to The Hermitage, where she lived the rest of her life with her husband, Alfred Jackson.

    Read more about Gracy Bradley’s White House
  43. Mobs of white citizens targeted Washington’s free black community in the Snow Riot.

  44. The House of Representatives passed a series of resolutions called “the gag rule,” barring discussion of slavery.

  45. John Gadsby: Hotelier & Slave Owner in the President’s Neighborhood

    For nearly four decades until 1836, John Gadsby was the premier hotelier in Alexandria, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. He relied on dozens of enslaved individuals to manage these establishments.

    Read more about John Gadsby: Hotelier & Slave Owner in the President’s Neighborhood
  46. The Yellow House Jail—Washington’s Most Notorious Slave Pen

    William H. Williams’ infamous private slave jail, dubbed the Yellow House, was located just south of the National Mall, on the block bounded by Seventh and Eighth streets, and by B Street and Maryland Avenue.

    Read more about The Yellow House Jail—Washington’s Most Notorious Slave Pen
  47. The Enslaved Households of President Martin Van Buren

    Earlier in his life, Martin Van Buren owned at least one enslaved individual—a man named Tom. He also relied on enslaved labor at both Decatur House and the White House.

    Read more about The Enslaved Households of President Martin Van Buren
  48. The President's Neighborhood Expands

    This map of Washington, D.C. from 1857 shows a number of government buildings in the President's Neighborhood. It also shows nearby homes where enslaved people lived, including the Decatur House, the Blair House, and the Cutts-Madison House.

  49. The Supreme Court ruled on United States v. The Amistad.

  50. President William Henry Harrison moved into the White House.

  51. The Enslaved Households of President John Tyler

    After the unexpected death of President William Henry Harrison, John Tyler became the first vice president to ascend to the presidency. He brought his large family and several enslaved individuals with him to the White House.

    Read more about The Enslaved Households of President John Tyler
  52. Robbery at the Tyler White House

    According to this newspaper article, “a colored woman named Mary Murphy” was “charged with stealing silver table and teaspoons.” The report also mentioned that “a colored servant belonging to the President is also implicated in this theft.”

    Read more about Robbery at the Tyler White House
  53. The Enslaved Households of President James K. Polk

    President James K. Polk not only relied on enslaved labor at the White House, but also secretly purchased and sold enslaved people while in office.

    Read more about The Enslaved Households of President James K. Polk
  54. The Mexican-American War

  55. Enslaved and Entrenched: The Complex Life of Elias Polk

    While his enslaved status prevented him from directly participating in conversations, Elias witnessed the turbulence of nineteenth-century politics up close.

    Read more about Enslaved and Entrenched: The Complex Life of Elias Polk
  56. Washington, D.C. retroceded Alexandria back to Virginia.

  57. Enslaved African Americans from Washington, D.C. took part in the Pearl Incident, the largest attempted slave escape in American history.

  58. The Enslaved Households of President Zachary Taylor

    As president, Zachary Taylor opposed the expansion of slavery into new territories. However, he also brought enslaved individuals to the White House.

    Read more about The Enslaved Households of President Zachary Taylor
  59. President Taylor’s Plantation

    A depiction of one of Zachary Taylor’s plantations. Taylor owned multiple plantations in Mississippi and another in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. During his presidency, he continued to own and operate his Cypress Grove plantation in Mississippi.

  60. Congress enacted legislation forming the Compromise of 1850.

  61. Congress passed a strengthened Fugitive Slave Act.

  62. President Millard Fillmore moved into the White House.

  63. Nancy Syphax – Life and Legacy

    Nancy Syphax worked as an enslaved house servant at Decatur House for John Gadsby, and his daughter Augusta McBlair. Nancy was freed by the Washington, D.C. Compensated Emancipation Act of 1862 but continued to work in her former enslaver’s household.

    Read more about Nancy Syphax – Life and Legacy
  64. President Franklin Pierce moved into the White House.

  65. Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, repealing the 1820 Missouri Compromise.

  66. President James Buchanan moved into the White House.

  67. The Supreme Court ruled on Dred Scott v. Sanford.

  68. Harriet and Dred Scott and Their Children

    The Supreme Court ruled that the Scotts were not entitled to their freedom under the United States Constitution. Their case became one of the rallying cries of the abolitionist movement in the lead-up to the Civil War.

  69. John Brown led raid on Harpers Ferry.

  70. The Household of President Abraham Lincoln

    All of the staff members in Abraham Lincoln’s White House were free men and women, but many had been enslaved or descended from enslaved families. They assisted Mrs. Lincoln, influenced President Lincoln's thoughts, and vetted his timeless rhetoric.

    Read more about The Household of President Abraham Lincoln
  71. Civil War

  72. Congress established Emancipation Day in Washington, D.C.

  73. Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln

    Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln shared a tumultuous relationship during the Lincoln presidency, but in the end, Douglass taught Lincoln many lessons about racial equality and the importance of actions, rather than words.

    Read more about Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln
  74. Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

  75. Abraham Lincoln assassinated.

  76. The Formerly Enslaved Households of President Andrew Johnson

    Andrew Johnson’s close association with Abraham Lincoln often disguises Johnson’s own slave ownership. He is a complicated example of a southerner who simultaneously supported the Union and gradual emancipation while perpetuating slavery.

    Read more about The Formerly Enslaved Households of President Andrew Johnson
  77. William Johnson—Formerly Enslaved by President Andrew Johnson

    William Johnson became nationally recognized as the last surviving individual to be formerly enslaved by a U.S. president. He was invited to the White House to meet President Franklin Roosevelt in 1937. He is pictured here at the U. S. Capitol Building.

  78. Ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment.

  79. “The parades as they passed by the White House were reviewed by the President [Benjamin Harrison] and all the members of the cabinet.”

    The African-American community in Washington, D.C. commemorated Emancipation Day from 1866-1901 with parades and celebrations.

    Read more about The African-American community in Washington, D.C. commemorated Emancipation Day from 1866-1901 with parades and celebrations.
  80. Ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment.

  81. Ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment.

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