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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.

    Read more about The Enslaved Households of President George Washington
  11. The First Ladies and Slavery

    Slavery was part of one-third of the first ladies' identities and lifestyles. These women benefitted from enslaved labor, and shared a more intimate relationship with slavery than their husbands, particularly managing enslaved servants within the home.

    Read more about The First Ladies and Slavery
  12. The Residence Act, establishing the District of Columbia, was passed by Congress and signed into law by President George Washington.

  13. 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
  14. 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
  15. Self-liberated slaves initiated the Haitian Revolution.

  16. Benjamin Banneker: Surveyor

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

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

    first lady michelle obama

  18. 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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  19. Congress enacted the Fugitive Slave Act.

  20. “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

  21. 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.

    Read more about The Households of President John Adams
  22. Gabriel's Rebellion

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

  24. 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
  25. 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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  26. A law banning the African slave trade went into effect in the United States.

  27. 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
  28. 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
  29. The War of 1812

  30. 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
  31. An Early Black Family's Life in Lafayette Park

    In 1814, Lynch and Mary Wormley arrived in Washington, D.C. Their family would become an integral part of the President’s Neighborhood, fighting for their civil rights on a daily basis, while also owning and operating the prominent Wormley Hotel.

    Read more about An Early Black Family's Life in Lafayette Park
  32. British troops entered Washington, D.C. and set fire to the White House, Capitol Building, Treasury, and the executive offices.

  33. 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.

    Read more about Slavery at Octagon House
  34. Construction began on the White House rebuild.

  35. 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.

    Read more about The American Colonization Society
  36. 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
  37. 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.

    Read more about Enslaved Workers on the White House Grounds
  38. Congress passed the Missouri Compromise.

  39. 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
  40. The Enslaved Household of Tench Ringgold

    Tench Ringgold was a prominent slave owner in Washington, D.C. and his relationships with those in power led to a close friendship with President James Monroe. According to the 1820 census, the Ringgold household enslaved around twenty-nine people.

    Read more about The Enslaved Household of Tench Ringgold
  41. 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
  42. "liberated & set free at Mr. Monroe's dying request": Peter Marks' White House Story

    Peter Marks is the only known individual to be freed by President James Monroe. After being freed, Peter Marks and his wife, Eugenia Hemings, who was formerly enslaved by the Jefferson family, settled in Philadelphia to work and raise their family.

    Read more about "liberated & set free at Mr. Monroe's dying request": Peter Marks' White House Story
  43. Enslaved Virginians sparked the deadliest revolt in U.S. history in Nat Turner’s Rebellion.

  44. 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.

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  45. 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
  46. 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
  47. Mobs of white citizens targeted Washington’s free black community in the Snow Riot.

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

  49. 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
  50. 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
  51. 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
  52. 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.

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

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

  55. 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.

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  56. Slave Patrols in the President's Neighborhood

    Colonial slave codes shaped early policing in Washington, using violence to control enslaved peoples’ movements. The establishment of the Auxiliary Guard in 1842 following protests at the White House formalized these slave patrol practices.

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  57. 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
  58. 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.

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  59. The Mexican-American War

  60. 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
  61. Plantations and Politics

    Born into slavery on a Mississippi planation around 1831, Henry Carter, Jr. and his parents Henry, Sr. and Mariah, were owned by James K. Polk. Henry, Jr. became a butler for the Polks, moving to Tennessee and later the White House.

    Read more about Plantations and Politics
  62. Washington, D.C. retroceded Alexandria back to Virginia.

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

  64. 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
  65. 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.

  66. Congress enacted legislation forming the Compromise of 1850.

  67. Congress passed a strengthened Fugitive Slave Act.

  68. President Millard Fillmore moved into the White House.

  69. 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
  70. President Franklin Pierce moved into the White House.

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

  72. President James Buchanan moved into the White House.

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

  74. 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.

  75. John Brown led raid on Harpers Ferry.

  76. 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
  77. From Slavery to the White House: The Extraordinary Life of Elizabeth Keckly

    Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly was born into slavery. After purchasing her own freedom, she moved to Washington, D.C. and became First Lady Mary Lincoln’s dressmaker, eventually publishing a memoir about her life and friendship with Mrs. Lincoln.

    Read more about From Slavery to the White House: The Extraordinary Life of Elizabeth Keckly
  78. Civil War

  79. Washington, D.C.'s "Contraband" Camps

    In April 1862, Congress passed the Compensated Emancipation Act, ending slavery in Washington, D.C. Formerly enslaved refugees were welcomed into "Contraband" Camps with abysmal conditions, which President Lincoln donated to improve throughout the war.

    Read more about Washington, D.C.'s "Contraband" Camps
  80. Congress established Emancipation Day in Washington, D.C.

  81. 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
  82. The Williams Family

    Maria and Keziah Williams were the matriarchs of their families. Enslaved by hotelier John Gadsby, they were brought to Washington to work in his lodging establishments and later Decatur House. Sadly, they were separated from each other during the 1850s.

    Read more about The Williams Family
  83. Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

  84. Abraham Lincoln assassinated.

  85. 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
  86. 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.

  87. The White House and Reconstruction

    During and following the Civil War, the United States faced the task of piecing the war-torn nation back together, included grappling with the end of slavery. Over the course of fourteen years, three presidents worked to reconcile and rebuild the country.

    Read more about The White House and Reconstruction
  88. Ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment.

  89. “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.
  90. Ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment.

  91. The Formerly Enslaved Households of the Grant Family

    Grant's legacy as the respected Commanding General of the Union Army, and his efforts as president to protect black citizenship have long obscured his personal slave-ownership, as well as that of his beloved wife.

    Read more about The Formerly Enslaved Households of the Grant Family
  92. Ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment.

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