Slavery & Service: Blacks In The White House

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The first child born at the White House was the grandson of President Thomas Jefferson. The second child born there was his property — the African-American baby of Jefferson’s two slaves.

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Slaves not only helped build the White House, but also for decades men and women in bondage served America’s presidents and first families as butlers, cooks and maids.

Two hundred years later, Barack Obama’s election as the 44th president — the first black chief executive — is casting a spotlight on the complicated history of African-Americans and the exalted place they called home — the White House.

During and after slavery, black workers made the White House function. Obama’s entry on Jan. 20, 2009, will be a moment for the ages that few of them could imagine.

“I’m very proud of the fact we’re going to have an African-American president and I think the help is going to be pleased to be working for an African-American president,” said 89-year-old William Bowen Jr., a second-generation White House butler who worked for Presidents Dwight Eisenhower to George H.W. Bush.

When Bowen started at the White House in 1957, the civil rights movement was still in its infancy, segregation was still legal and African-Americans were just penetrating the upper echelons of government service.

People like Bowen, employed at the White House before the civil rights and feminist movements, were the “help.”

Surrounded by presidential memorabilia in his suburban Maryland home — including a newspaper trumpeting Obama’s victory — Bowen is contemplating coming out of retirement to work for the first black president.

“I never thought, coming up, that this would ever happen. Not in my lifetime,” Bowen said.

His father, William Bowen, left his job at the Washington Navy Yard after World War I to become a White House butler. He soon recruited his son to work there as a mail carrier and part-time butler. The senior Bowen taught him the White House domestic code of silence, which White House workers observe to this day.

“Pay attention and don’t be talking to people while on your assignment,” Bowen Jr. remembered his father lecturing. “Don’t unnecessarily engage some of the guests unless they speak to you.”

It was hard sometimes, with celebrities such as Duke Ellington and Pearl Bailey frequenting White House parties and dinners. To this day, Bowen remembers conversations with presidents and first ladies, but they are something he still will not repeat.

“You don’t talk about things that happened on the job,” Bowen said.

A century before the Bowens, slaves labored inside and outside the White House. Washington planner Pierre L’Enfant rented slaves from nearby owners to dig the foundation for the White House. White House designer James Hoben used some of his slave carpenters to build it.

President George Washington forced slaves from Mount Vernon to work as staff inside “the President’s House” in Philadelphia during his term. Thus began a tradition of enslaved men and women working for the president in his residence, a practice that continued until the 1850s.

Not only did they work in the White House, enslaved men and women lived there as well. According to the White House Historical Association, the slave and servant quarters were in the basement, now called the ground floor. The rooms now include the library, china room, offices and the formal Diplomatic Reception Room. At least one African-American baby was born there, in 1806 to Fanny and Eddy, two of Jefferson’s slaves. The child, who was also considered a slave, died two years later.

History values these slaves for more than just their labor.

Paul Jennings, President James Madison’s personal slave, told the first tale of White House life written by someone who lived there. Jennings, in his memoirs, debunked the oft-repeated White House legend of first lady Dolley Madison saving the portrait of Washington from invading British troops.

“This is totally false,” Jennings said. “She had no time for doing it. It would have required a ladder to get it down. All she carried off was the silver.”

Instead a Frenchman, John Suse, and Magraw, the president’s gardener, took the painting down and sent it off on a wagon, Jennings said. Later in his life, he would give part of the money he earned as a freedman to help a destitute Dolley Madison after her husband’s death.

As the years progressed, so did the role of African-Americans inside the White House.

Blacks moved from slaves to honored guests — President Abraham Lincoln met with abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth in the White House — to indispensable parts of White House life. President Andrew Johnson appointed William Slade as the first White House steward, the person charged with running the domestic side of the White House.

Not only did blacks work in the White House, they also started working at the White House. E. Frederick Morrow was the first African-American appointed a White House aide by Eisenhower in 1955; John F. Kennedy named Andrew Hatcher associate press secretary in 1960.

The progress was hardly smooth.

In 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt formally invited Booker T. Washington to the White House for dinner. But as Republican presidential candidate John McCain noted in his concession speech last month, Southern newspapers were outraged and publicly condemned Roosevelt after they learned of the invitation from an Associated Press dispatch. Roosevelt never invited another African-American to a White House dinner.

All the while behind the scenes, African-American domestic workers such as John Pye kept the White House humming along.

“These are the folks who not only keep the leadership comfortable, but they make the White House into a home for those occupants, and they make government service more than tolerable for high-level staffers who are working long hours,” said Gail Lowe, senior historian at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum. “Without their eyewitness to history, we probably would not have as full a story as we have of the inner workings of the White House.”

The Smithsonian holds memorabilia belonging to Pye, who worked as valet, messenger, driver, cook and butler in the White House during President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration.

Sometimes the workers also made history, Lowe said.

“When the first war bonds were issued in April 1942, President Roosevelt did a little presale as a publicity move, and the first person to whom he sold a war bond was John Pye,” said Lowe. “It cost $18.75. And as President Roosevelt made his pitch for the war bonds — ‘This is to support our war effort. Our young men are serving overseas, They’re giving their lives, we can lend our money.’ — almost before the words were out of his mouth, John Pye had stepped forward to purchase the bond.”

Despite their contributions, blacks experienced racism even inside the White House.

Alonzo Fields, a former maitre ‘d who worked in the White House for 31 years, said they had segregated dining rooms for the workers at one point.

“I’m good enough to handle the president’s food and do everything, but I cannot eat with the help,” Fields, who died in 1994, told the Smithsonian Institution Center for Folklife Programs & Cultural Studies for its Workers in the White House project.

Pye faced at least one incident with Richard M. Nixon, then vice president, who came to him and asked about some leftover food.

Nixon said: “Boy, what are y’all going to do with the rest of the food,” Lowe said. “Mr. Pye did not like being called ‘boy’ and he didn’t like to be questioned about how the kitchen would deal with leftovers.”

Pye told him that the food went to charity, but it turned out Nixon wanted to eat the leftovers.

“Pye made sure they went to charitable organizations that day,” Lowe said.

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