July 2016

The Black History of the White House

Submitted by Adrian on

“I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.”
-Michelle Obama

These words were spoken by Michelle Obama at the Democratic National Convention and with these words have come much curiosity.

Yes!  This is true.  The White House and a great deal of Washington D.C. were built by free men and slave labor.  Slaves were used to perform many of the tasks and functions necessary, unskilled, semi-skilled and skilled. Most of these slaves were leased or rented from their owners.  

A couple of years ago I read a book that went into this as well as many little known facts surrounding the White House.  The title of the book is “The Black History of the White House” and besides being a history of the White House from the “Black” point of view, and showing the history of Black people.  

One thing discussed that I found enlightening was how we came about having a nation of contradictions.  How the United States can be a nation where “all men are created equal” while at the same time a nation that enslaves people of African descent.  How the United States can be the “land of the free and the home of the brave” while at the same time selling and discriminating against people of color.

“The Black History of the White House” informs us about why the United States rebelled against England. Not because of “taxation without representation”, but to protect our slave business from a British government that was becoming more abolitionists. This book was one of the first books to show me how inadequate my schooling was in telling the truth about our nation and the experience of African Americans.

This book is a history of African American people from our nation’s beginnings to the election of our first African American president.  Besides relating facts it tells the stories of some of the first slave servants in the White House like the story of Oney Judge who was a personal slave to First Lady Martha Washington.  With the aid of Philadelphia’s free black community, she was able to escape to freedom and there is also the story of Paul Jennings who served our 4th President, James Madison. Paul Jennings was the first to write about working in the White House. 

Another interesting bit of history mentioned was about the first “free” African American (not a servant or a slave) to entertain at the White House.  This was in 1860 and his name was “Blind Tom”.  He was a piano prodigy who was born blind and had the ability to reproduce on the piano, music that he had only heard once and there is the story about the night that President Theodore Roosevelt felt inclined to invite Booker T. Washington to the White House for dinner.  There was such an uproar you have to read the book to get all the details.

There is much information in this book and I recommend it as a good beginning to understanding the issues of race, history, slavery and politics in the United States.  If you do not know our past you cannot truly understand the present.