The Last Plantation

In 1792, 400 of the 600 workers who built the White House and the U.S. Capitol were locally recruited slaves, their five-dollar-a-month wage pocketed by their owners despite them working from dawn to dusk six days a week. Black people not only built the White House but have worked there ever since as butlers, cooks and maids — first through slavery and, later, through the indignities of racial segregation. The White House was not finished in time for George Washington to occupy it, and instead he resided in the President’s House in Philadelphia, filling it with slaves from his estate in Mount Vernon, Virginia.

U.S. historians like to portray Washington as a reluctant slave owner who eventually ordered all 300 of his slaves to be freed, but only after he and wife Martha were dead, when of course they would have no use for them. In fact, Washington was a typical plantation owner, a strict disciplinarian who had slaves flogged to keep them in line. He saw no problem with dividing enslaved families, separating children from their parents. Washington had two escaped slaves relentlessly pursued and he circumvented a law freeing any slave who stayed in Philadelphia for six months by rotating his house servants to ensure they never remained there that long.

Most of the household employees of the White House were white although there were several blacks, including butler-waiter Peter Brown, cook Cornelia Mitchell, and an usher named Edward. The President himself brought a black servant with him from Illinois but racial problems with other employees led Mr. Lincoln to seek other employment for William Johnson. Mary Todd Lincoln … preferred the company of her seamstress, Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave. The wife of William Slade, black steward and messenger, was given the dress that Mrs. Lincoln had worn when her husband was assassinated.

President Obama’s daughters, Malia and Sasha aren’t the first black children to be raised in the White House. In 1806, a couple named Fanny and Eddy had a child there. The baby was born in the basement of the Presidential mansion at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and lived there for two years only before his or her death. History doesn’t record the name or sex of the unfortunate child as both parents were slaves, the property of that supposed champion of liberty, President Thomas Jefferson.

Although America’s second leader, John Adams, was a committed abolitionist, President after President after Adams kept slaves at the White House — billeting them in poorly furnished rooms in the basement.

Washington D.C. was one of slavery’s main hubs. Appalled foreign visitors reported the inhuman conditions of the crowded slave pens and the city’s continual background noise of wailing as the captives marched shackled together or waited to be sold at the auction block.

Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery in 1863 but you wouldn’t have noticed much difference in the White House. All the more menial jobs on the White House domestic staff — nicknamed ‘the help’ — continued to be done by African-Americans.

Given that most blacks then couldn’t work as anything but servants or manual labourers, any White House post brought huge prestige and was guarded zealously by its holder and often passed down through the family. In return, they had to accept that the top jobs were held by whites.

Woodrow Wilson, who took the U.S. into World War I, referred to African-Americans as an ‘ignorant and inferior race’. In 1915, he even organized a White House screening of the vehemently racist film The Birth Of A Nation, which portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as heroes. Wilson insisted he hadn’t known about its content, but many blacks never forgave him.

In the 1920s, Herbert Hoover and his wife, Lou, happily employed black butlers in the dining room — but only if they were all the same size, which Lou found more aesthetically pleasing. Although Lou once invited the only black Congressman to tea, her husband — for reasons unclear — refused to be photographed with black people.

Alonzo Fields served four Presidents, from Hoover to Eisenhower, working as the White House’s first black chief butler for most of his time there. When he arrived at the White House, in 1931, he discovered there were separate dining rooms for white and black staff. As a Northerner who had never encountered segregation, he was deeply disappointed that his first experience should be at the White House.

‘We all worked together but we couldn’t eat together  . . . Here in the White House!’ he wrote. ‘This is the home of the democracy of the world, and I’m good enough to handle the President’s food but I cannot eat with the [white] help.’

Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of Franklin D. Roosevelt, was a liberal firebrand who tried hard to advance the cause of blacks in America. Moving into the White House in 1933, she got round the convention of staff segregation by insisting all the servants be black.

Doorman Preston Bruce recalled there were limits to racial integration, even with JFK. He was horrified when black entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. brought his blonde Swedish wife, May Britt, to a White House reception. Terrified that a photo would appall the many Americans who opposed mixed-race marriage, the President hissed to an aide: ‘Get them out of here.’

Some feel the White House is the last plantation,’ said Chris Emery, former assistant chief usher to George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton. ‘It’s been that way for 200 years.’ Read more: