Shattering the Old Symbol of the White House

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Mr. Sherman is a doctoral candidate at Saint Louis University and specializes in the history of the presidency. He is co-editor of Political Conspiracies in America: A Reader (Indiana Univ. Press, 2008) and is completing his dissertation on the development of presidential protection in the nineteenth century.

The recent election of President Barack Obama made me recall a high school memory.  It has proven to be one of the most memorable events in my high school career, which occurred as I was running an errand for my mother.  I had just received my license and was eager to go anywhere, even if it was to the post office that was only six blocks away from my house.  What I saw on that day, though, would forever change my opinions about race relations in this nation.

I grew up in a very small town in Southern Illinois where few African Americans made their residence.  In fact, only 6 percent of Madison County’s residents were black in 1990, and in my town only two out of one-thousand students at my high school were African Americans.  So needless to say I was surprised when I saw a young African-American adult about my age running down the street near the movie theater.  He quickly ducked into an alley and kept running, and I soon saw what was making him flee.  A group of fifteen juniors and seniors from my high school, some with wooden bats in their hands, were chasing this young man.

Upon witnessing this event, I immediately drove home and told my father what had occurred, who was a sergeant with the local police.  My father quickly dialed the private line to the police station and reported the incident.  Apparently, the next day I learned through the rumor mill at the high school that the black teenager had been visiting from another town and had been trying to flirt with a white high school girl.  This story was later confirmed by my father, and I thought the terrible affair had ended. I was wrong.  A few days later, the African-American high school student returned to our city with some of his friends to confront his assaulters.  The fifteen boys from my high school were made aware of the presence of the out-of-town teenagers, and they armed themselves.  Thankfully, before anyone was hurt, the police of the city prevented the brawl.  That Friday the same group of fifteen boys organized a white power meeting on our square.  Again, the police successfully broke up this meeting.  I must reiterate that these were not the actions of a town; it was the concerted and bigoted effort of a few teenagers.  Arguably, the shocking part of this story is that the affair occurred in 1996.  Even though Shirley Chisholm had tried to earn the Democratic Party’s nomination in 1972 and Jesse Jackson had made an attempt at the Democratic Party nomination twice in the 1980s, the events of that week in 1996 made me think at the time that I would never see an African American elected as president.

As I pondered this memory while watching the election returns on November 4, the symbolic importance of race and the presidency, at least for me, became more tangible.  But during the campaign, these discussions have also included other symbolic themes, such as hope and change.  Obama himself stated in July 2008 that he has “become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions.”  Race, though, has been at the forefront of many journal articles and filled hours of political commentary from the news media.  I personally don’t know how the issue of race could escape the political radar of any eligible voter.  For me, his nomination was a symbol of America’s progression away from our racist past, and was not only important for African Americans but for all Americans.  His subsequent election and his acceptance speech in Grant Park in Chicago only furthered this important and much needed change in the United States.    

Since then, the discourse of symbols—both in the media and history circles—has been overshadowed by reports of his and his transition team’s efforts in putting together a “team of rivals,” similar to what presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin argued in her book about President Abraham Lincoln.  (I might add that forging a “team of rivals” is not new in American history.  President James Monroe appointed his political rival William H. Crawford of Georgia as secretary of the treasury.  This practice was continued by many presidents in the nineteenth century.)  Somehow the symbolism of Obama has disappeared from these discussions, and more importantly, I felt as if a historical perspective about the White House—as a building—and race was missing entirely.  Then I saw it—President-elect Obama and his wife Michelle standing in front of an entrance to the White House with President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush. 

Since its construction, the White House, more commonly referred to the Executive Mansion or President’s House in the nineteenth century, long has been the symbol of the presidency.  Unfortunately, the White House itself has also been a symbol of restricted access to African Americans as Republican presidential nominee John McCain pointedly noted at the Alfred E. Smith Dinner in October.  But what was McCain referring to?  

During the early nineteenth century, African Americans were generally not allowed to enter the President’s House, unless they were slaves of presidents who worked as servants or slaves or free laborers who performed a variety of work during the construction and renovation phases of the mansion.  At President Andrew Jackson’s public levees, a few free African Americans boldly entered the halls of the mansion, much to the chagrin of the white attendees.  President Abraham Lincoln would buck this trend when he received black abolitionists Frederick Douglass in the summer of 1863 and Sojourner Truth in the fall of 1864.  A few years later, President Rutherford B. Hayes invited black concert performers and Frederick Douglass to the Executive Mansion, but the average African American still shied away from the house.  In October 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt instructed his private secretary George Cortelyou to invite Booker T. Washington, the author of Up from Slavery (1901), to the White House.  The reaction of the press was unforgiving and highly critical of the president.  A shocked Roosevelt thought it was wise “to show some respect to…a good citizen and good American,” but the criticism the president received would make him wary of even allowing African Americans to attend social functions, thus setting a social standard for many years. 

President Woodrow Wilson ejected black civil rights activist William Monroe Trotter after he criticized the president for allowing the segregation of the federal clerks.  It was not until 1929 that this social stigma would be challenged in the face of Jim Crow.  First Lady Lou Henry Hoover invited Jessie DePriest, the wife of newly elected black Congressman Oscar DePriest (R-IL), to a tea reception at the White House for the spouses of members of Congress.  Nevertheless, like the Washington debacle of 1901, some of the wives of congressmen threatened to boycott the party if Hoover invited DePriest. Through careful planning, Hoover resolved to have multiple tea parties and welcomed DePriest to the last gathering. 

Finally, in 1955, the color barrier was broken for administrative role in the White House.  President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed E. Frederic Morrow as Administrative Officer for Special Projects.  Since that time, African Americans have played an integral role in the Executive Branch, and under George W. Bush’s administration, African-Americans and minorities have occupied some of the highest level Cabinet positions in our history.  When Obama was elected to the nation’s highest office on November 4, it quickly put to bed the seemingly never ending question, “What if an African American was elected to the highest office in our land?”  By asking this question, I am not diminishing the advances made by previous African Americans in the last century nor am I suggesting that Obama’s election was predetermined.  Not only are teleological explanations of history dangerous, but none of us are fortune tellers and we all can easily reverse the historical process.

It is clear, though, that Obama’s election has shattered the old symbol of the White House and that his inauguration will be more than a transition of power from one party to the other.  But what will the new symbol of the White House be?  Will it be a symbol of hope to African-American parents that their children have the same opportunity to be president?  Or will Obama’s occupancy of the White House usher in a new discourse about race in society?  Or will this be a symbol to all Americans of new possibilities as Obama noted in July?  As a historian, I have learned to be careful when making predictions about the future, and I am glad to know that I made the wrong prediction in 1996.  But what I do know is that our perception of the White House as a symbol will forever be changed on January 20, 2009.

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More Comments:

Antoinette LaSalle - 3/9/2009

Enough, already!

Vernon Clayson - 12/15/2008

Hard to believe that a grown man didn't become aware of problems between black and white kids until 1997, where has he been? I hate to tell him that blacks have problems with Hispanics and vice versa, whites and Hispanics also have problems with each other. Blacks have problems with blacks, whites have problems with whites, Mexicans have problems with Mexicans. Most of it in high school is about girls, after that it's about drugs and worse. Nice job, my behind. The man is naive and lives in a dream world.

Larry DeWitt - 12/15/2008


Nice job.

Larry DeWitt

James W Loewen - 12/15/2008

What town was this? Was it a sundown town? Many towns in Madison County, IL, were. Why "protect" the town by keeping it anonymous. We need to "out" every last one of them, in the process inviting them to (1)admit it, (2) apologize, and (3) state "we don't do it any more."