Slavery and the White House


Construction on the President’s House began in 1792 in Washington, D.C., a new capital situated in sparsely settled region far from a major population center.

  • Construction on the President’s House began in 1792. The decision to place the capital on land ceded by two slave states—Virginia and Maryland—ultimately influenced the acquisition of laborers to construct its public buildings. The District of Columbia commissioners, charged by Congress with building the new city under the direction of the president, initially planned to import workers from Europe to meet their labor needs. However, response to recruitment was dismal and soon they turned to African-Americans—slave and free—to provide the bulk of labor that built the White House, the United States Capitol, and other early government buildings.

  • A major concern in the construction of the new public buildings in this remote location was the acquisition of building materials, such as stone, lumber, bricks, hardware, and nails. African-American quarrymen, sawyers, brick-makers, and carpenters fashioned raw materials into the products used to erect the White House. Enslaved people were trained on the spot at the government’s quarry at Aquia in Stafford County, Virginia, 40 miles south of Washington. There, they quarried and cut the rough stone that was later dressed and laid by Scottish stonecutters to erect the walls of the President’s House.

  • Wage rolls for May 1795 list five enslaved persons, Tom, Peter, Ben, Harry and Daniel, four of whom were owned by White House architect James Hoban. Daniel was owned by Hoban’s assistant, Pierce Purcell.

  • Presidents Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Tyler, Polk, and Taylor relied on slave labor in the White House. The enslaved persons and families lived in the basement/ground floor of the White House.

  • As a general manager of the White House staff, President Thomas Jefferson relied heavily on his French steward Etienne Lemaire. With several white servants and staff, the remainder of Jefferson’s regular household staff, which numbered a dozen, included enslaved people from Monticello. John Freeman, for example, served as a waiter. In 1806, a child was born at the White House to Fanny and Edy Fossett, two enslaved people. Sadly, the child died before reaching the age of two.

  • Slave labor, as well as free labor, was also used during the 1814-1818 rebuilding of the White House following the War of 1812.

  • Paul Jennings (1799-1874), who was born into slavery on President James Madison’s estate at Montpelier, was a “body servant” who attended to the president until his death in 1836. Jennings later purchased his freedom from Daniel Webster. After meeting the terms of his agreement with Webster, Jennings became a free man and found work at the Department of the Interior. In 1865 Jennings published A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison, the first memoir about life in the White House. In his memoirs, he details the evacuation of the White House before its 1814 destruction by the British, including the preservation of Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington.

  • President Andrew Jackson was a slave owner who brought a large household of enslaved people with him from Tennessee to the President’s House. At the President’s House, they came under the direction of the Antoine Michel Giusta, the steward of the White House. Many white servants were thus replaced by the less expensive labor of enslaved workers.

  • President James Buchanan’s household staff was entirely white. Buchanan specified that the new employees were to be British. Except for the butler, Pierre Vermereu, who was Belgian, all of the servants living under the Buchanan roof were from England, Ireland, and Wales. Some of these continued in service during Lincoln’s administration.

  • During the Lincoln Administration some of Buchanan’s British-born domestic staff remained and other workers were brought from Illinois. Joining them in the White House, although she was not a member of the staff, was African-American Elizabeth Keckley (1818-1907). She was born into bondage in Dinwiddie, Virginia, and worked as a talented seamstress who bought her freedom and moved in 1860 to Washington, D.C., where she established a dressmaking business. Keckley became First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln’s seamstress and eventually a close friend and confidante. One of the most important 19th-century accounts of life in the White House was Keckley’s 1868 memoir, Behind the Scenes, or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House.

  • During the Civil War, President Lincoln invited abolitionist Frederick Douglass to the White House to discuss the recruitment of African American troops for the Union cause. On October 29, 1864, Lincoln met with Sojourner Truth, a strong advocate of abolition and women’s rights.

  • A notable African-American to work at the White House in the 1860s was William Slade who had been a messenger in the Treasury Department. According to his daughter, Slade became Abraham Lincoln’s personal messenger and friend. By 1866, Slade was a fixture at the White House, and became President Andrew Johnson’s steward. This federal official was in charge of the domestic management of the White House and responsible for the furnishings, silver, and other public property. Slade was the first official steward of the White House. It was a powerful and delicate position that called for the ability to communicate with politicians and officials as well as with the family and servants.

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