Lifestyle & Culture

Weekend Reading: The Invisibles

As shocking as it is to consider, many of us know that most of the early American presidents were slaveholders (Adams, father and son, were Quakers and anti-slavery). But some of us have never thought about the role those slaves played in the White House itself. Writer Jesse J. Holland has thought about it a lot and in The Invisibles: The Untold Story of African American Slaves in the White House, out this week from Lyons Press, an imprint of Globe Pequot, recounts some of the tales of body servants, chefs, carriage drivers and even jockeys (Andrew Jackson was a very competitive racehorse owner even while in the White House). As Holland writes at the beginning of his book, President Barack Obama and his family were not, in fact, the first African American family to reside in the White House. The book, along with Holland’s 2007 work, Black Men Built the Capitol, can be purchased here or at major bookstores.

THE ELECTION OF OBAMA brought Invisibles2webnew attention to the African American history of the White House and especially the use of slavery in its construction. The first black president of the United States living in a mansion constructed with the labor of unpaid African American slaves inspired eager reporters and historians to delve into the African American history of the building: the slaves who helped designer James Hoban construct the original building (which was burned by the British in the War of 1812); the domestic servants such as seamstress Elizabeth Keckley, a close friend of Abraham Lincoln, and White House butlers Alonzo Fields and Eugene Allen (whose life story was fictionalized by Hollywood for the movie [Lee Daniels’] “The Butler”) who walked with presidents and founded the upper-middle-class black structure of the District of Columbia; and political figures such as E. Frederick Morrow, the first African American to be officially appointed a White House aide, and Andrew T. Hatcher, the first African American to be named associate White House press secretary.

But lost in this historical exploration are the names of William Lee, Oney Judge, John Freeman, and Paul Jennings, men and women who actually lived inside the White House and other executive mansions as slaves of the presidents, slaves who toiled silently behind the scenes to care for the daily needs of the president, freeing the nation’s chief executive and his family from the drudgery of domestic work to concentrate on the cares of the nation in its earliest days.

They lived and they loved outside of their enslavement to the president, but few of their tales have been told. It always surprises me that the people I’ve told over the years about this project are startled to realize that slavery was actively practiced inside the White House.

Known interchangeably as the White House, the executive mansion, the President’s House, or the presidential mansion, the whitewashed building and all that it entails symbolizes the power and prestige of the United States of America, the truth and honor of the American form of government, as well as the freedom and dignity of all the people who make up this great country. This is probably why few people associate the so-called “President’s House,” this shining symbol of our American democracy, with one of the greatest scourges of humankind’s existence, slavery.

Starting with the nation’s first president, Gen. George Washington, and proceeding through the architect of the North’s victory in the Civil War, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, twelve of the first eighteen U.S. presidents owned Africans as slaves at one time or another in their lives. Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James K. Polk, Zachary Taylor, Andrew Johnson, and Grant all had different attitudes about slavery during their time as president, but all kept African American slaves.

Grant is revered as the general who led the United States to victory over the rebellious and treasonous Confederate States of America, which wanted to secede in part over its desire to continue legal human slavery within its borders. However, Grant at one point was a slaveholder himself. Given a slave by his father-in-law in Missouri, Grant freed him before the beginning of the Civil War, writing in a court document in 1859 that he does “hereby manumit, emancipate and set free from slavery my Negro man William, sometimes called William Jones . . . forever.” Grant in his later life would remember, “We felt that it was a stain to the Union that men should be bought and sold like cattle.”

Other American presidents felt the same way, but it did not stop them from using African slaves to enrich their lives both inside and outside the White House. Washington, Jefferson, and Madison all spoke against slavery before becoming president, yet kept slaves at their plantations to help line their pockets and keep them in the American aristocracy. Madison repeatedly said that slavery was wrong, and even spoke against it during the creation of the Constitution. “We have seen the mere distinction of color made in the most enlightened period of time, a ground of the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man,” Madison said during a speech at the Constitutional Convention on June 6, 1787. Yet during that same period Madison owned more than one hundred slaves at his Montpelier estate, and refused to release them upon his death as his other wealthy and powerful compatriots did. The only concession he made was to ask his wife, Dolley, not to sell any slaves without their consent contingent upon their good behavior after his death, advice Mrs. Madison didn’t even follow.

These same men, once elected president, did not want to incur the expense of paying for a staff to take care of the basic housekeeping functions of the presidential domicile. Congress, during the administration of these first twelve presidents, did not provide funding for a domestic staff for the White House, leaving it to the presidents to figure out how to pay for cooks, butlers, washerwomen, and the other household staff needed for a mansion the size of the White House. So to defray the cost of household help, eight of those twelve slave-holding presidents brought their slaves along to work with them inside the presidential mansions in which they resided: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Tyler, Polk, and Taylor. These African slaves began the tradition of African American service to the president of the United States.

The non-slave-holding presidents like John Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams, complained bitterly about the cost they incurred paying for the domestic staff for the White House and other presidential homes. Abigail Adams estimated that she needed at least thirty workers to make the “great castle” in Washington run properly, but since her family was not rich, she made do with six.

The southern slave owners who ascended to the presidency had no such problems. They simply imported slaves from plantations such as Mount Vernon, Montpelier, Monticello, Sherwood Forest, and The Hermitage, and installed them as the domestic staff inside the presidential residence. When a new president moved in, he would bring his slaves with him and his family to Washington, set them up inside the White House, and give them the training they needed to deal with the day-to-day life necessities of the president’s family and the entertainment and social functions of the most powerful man in America. Few people today know of these slaves’ existence, much less their names, but their tales tell us who we were as a country, who we are now as Americans, and who we might become in the future.

—Jesse J. Holland

Excerpted from The Invisibles: The Untold Story of African American Slaves in the White House, by Jesse J. Holland. Copyright © 2016 by Jesse J. Holland. Printed by permission of Lyons Press, an imprint of Globe Pequot.

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