A black man in the White House





Within days of his inauguration, as Barack Obama and his family begin to feel at home in the White House, Malia and Sasha will perhaps be scampering about the mansion’s staircases, bedrooms and formal public rooms.

As appealing as the prospect of that scene is, it is also a poignant reminder of how long it took for African-Americans to feel they had an equal place in that home.

In a pre-election conference call, Mr. Obama referred to the powerful symbolism of his daughters playing on the South Lawn of the White House, a building built with slave labor. And John McCain, in his concession speech Tuesday night, alluded to a private dinner that Theodore Roosevelt had with Booker T. Washington in 1901 that set off a poisonous controversy.

Responding to that dinner at the time, The Memphis Scimitar called it “the most damnable outrage which has ever been perpetrated by any citizen of the United States.” A former Democratic president, Grover Cleveland, wrote a letter to the House of Representatives, read on the floor in the election year of 1904, declaring that he had never done such a thing as invite a black man to dinner in that house.

John Stauffer, author of “Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln,” observed, “The racial history of the White House is a wonderful symbol of the racial history of the nation as a whole.”

The house itself was built by crews of black laborers — both slave and free. In 1801, a year after it opened, Thomas Jefferson brought nearly a dozen slaves from Monticello, and slaves would constitute much of the house’s staff until the death in 1850 of Zachary Taylor, the last slaveholder to be president.

Many lived in the servants’ quarters on the first floor, but some slept on the first family’s second floor — an intimacy that was a frequent source of tensions with non-slave servants.



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