Updated: Sep 3, 2020
Did you know that thirteen of the first fifteen United States presidents owned slaves? This stat is quite well-known among historians, but perhaps not so much by the general public. Thanks to former First Lady Michelle Obama, we now also know that slaves built the White House. But did you know that most early First Ladies felt compelled to supplement the household expense budget (doled out by a parsimonious Congress) with their own “servants” from home?
The fact of the matter is that in the first half of the nineteenth century, Washington, DC (the political hub of a free America) was a major center for slave traders to gather chattel to be shipped further south. It was common to see gangs of these unfortunates – including some kidnapped free blacks – chained and shackled to each other, being marched right past the Halls of Congress.
Well, you might say, this was the period of time when all those Virginia founders were being rewarded for their courage and foresight with a turn in the White House – and you’d be right. The two notable exceptions were the Adamses, father and son – also founding fathers – from Massachusetts, and ardent abolitionists.
But you may not know that many of those thirteen were Northern slaveholders. And there were still more Presidents who were former slave-holders from the North after the Civil War (and abolition of slavery), most notably – hold onto your hats – Ullyses S. Grant.
All this has been on my mind since I read the new book about Paul Jenkinson, A Slave in the White House – a surprising title since he was hardly the first slave in the White House, and far from the last. But he was – perhaps – the first literate one, who kept a journal during the time he served in the Madison White House (1809-1817).
There have actually been quite a few such books in recent years, due to increased research and – current politics to the side – increased interest. I read Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family when it first came out in 2009, but I was already familiar with this story. According to the author, Sally Hemings never lived in the White House, but she is nevertheless part of American presidential history, and our national shame of slavery.
There are many more resources for those interested in that part of our history which was omitted from the history books for over a century.
I first became familiar with Backstairs at the White House as a popular television mini-series (1979), with Olivia Cole and Leslie Uggams portraying the real-life mother-daughter team of domestic servants who served First Families for a total of 51 years.
Then there was the book and film entitled, The Butler, set in the more recent past, which highlighted the lingering effects of slavery, even in the White House.
While some of these stories might be dismissed as salacious gossip, they do shine a light on what we apparently still need to be reminded of.
I highly recommend all of the above, and predict that it will help you understand how we got to here (the primary reason for reading history in the first place.)
Shebby Lee is a historian, writer and tour operator specializing in the historic and cultural heritage of the Great American West. She is a frequent presenter at numerous history conferences and trade association meetings. Her early training was in the theatre and she served a tour of duty as an entertainer with the USO. She is also an Admiral in the Nebraska Navy.