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The House That Slaves Built

As Barack Obama and his family move into the presidential mansion, a look back at a 200-year-old house that has not always been so welcoming to blacks.

By Gardiner Harris


In 1801, a year after the White House opened, Thomas Jefferson moved in with nearly a dozen slaves from Monticello, his Virginia home. And slaves made up much of the house's staff until the death in 1850 of Zachary Taylor, the last slaveholder to be President.

The White House was built by crews of black laborers—both slave and free. Today, more than 200 years later, Barack Obama's family making the White House their home is a powerful symbol of change for Americans of all races.

"The racial history of the White House is a wonderful symbol of the racial history of the nation as a whole," notes author John Stauffer.

In the 19th century, the most prominent black guest at the White House was abolitionist Frederick Douglass. He came three times while Abraham Lincoln was President, but his last visit was perhaps his most important.

The White House had been thrown open to the public to celebrate the President's second inaugural, but the guards turned Douglass away—apparently on standing orders that blacks were not to be allowed in. Douglass sent in his card, and Lincoln ordered him admitted.

Well into the 20th century, it was considered taboo to invite blacks to a meal at the White House. When President Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to a private dinner in 1901, a Memphis, Tennessee, newspaper called it "the most damnable outrage which has ever been perpetrated by any citizen of the United States."

Lou Hoover, the wife of President Herbert Hoover, found the taboo against inviting blacks to be a problem in 1929, after Oscar De Priest of Illinois became the first African-American elected to Congress since Reconstruction. The First Lady was warned not to invite DePriest's wife to her traditional tea for congressional wives, so instead she arranged a separate tea party for Mrs. DePriest. But the event still drew a resolution of criticism from the Texas Legislature.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt's wife, Eleanor, famously included blacks among her many guests at the White House. She, too, was criticized—including when she invited Marian Anderson to follow her concert at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 by singing at the White House before the King and Queen of England.

Bess Abell, who was the White House social secretary during Lyndon B. Johnson's administration in the 1960s, vividly remembers a state dinner at which Sarah Vaughan sang but, after dinner, disappeared.

"I found her in this office, which had been turned over to her as a dressing room, and she was sobbing," Abell said in an interview. "And I said, 'Mrs. Vaughan, what's wrong? What can I do?'

And she said, 'There's nothing wrong. This is the most wonderful day of my life. When I first came to Washington, I couldn't get a hotel room, and tonight, I danced with the President.' "

Gardiner Harris is a reporter for The New York Times.