WASHINGTON (AP) — The first child born at the White House was the grandson of President Thomas Jefferson. The second child born there was his property – the African-American baby of Jefferson’s two slaves.
Yes, slaves not only helped build the White House – for decades men and women in bondage served America’s presidents and first families as butlers, cooks and maids.
Two hundred years later, Barack Obama’s election as the 44th president – the first black chief executive – is casting a spotlight on the complicated history of African Americans and the exalted place they called home – the White House.
During and after slavery, black workers have made the White House work. Obama’s entry on Jan. 20, 2009, will be a moment for the ages that few of them could imagine.
“I’m very proud of the fact we’re going to have an African-American president, and I think the help is going to be pleased to be working for an African-American president,” said 89-year-old William Bowen Jr., a second-generation White House butler who worked for Presidents Dwight Eisenhower to George H.W. Bush.
It was a different era when Bowen started at the White House. The civil rights movement was still in its infancy, segregation was still legal and African Americans were just penetrating the upper echelons of government service with Mary McLeod Bethune’s appointment at the National Youth Administration by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936.
To people like Bowen, employed at the White House before the civil rights and feminist movements, they were the “help.”
Surrounded by presidential memorabilia in his suburban Maryland home – including a newspaper trumpeting Obama’s victory – Bowen is contemplating coming out of retirement just to work for the first black president.
“I never thought, coming up, that this would ever happen, not in my lifetime,” Bowen said.
His father, William Bowen, left his job at the Washington Navy Yard after World War I to become a White House butler. He soon recruited his son to work there as a part-time butler and mail carrier. It was the senior Bowen who taught him the White House domestic code of silence, something that is followed by current White House workers to this day.
“Pay attention, and don’t be talking to people while on your assignment,” Bowen Jr., remembered his father lecturing. “Don’t unnecessarily engage some of the guests unless they speak to you, and don’t go up and start to speaking to the guests unless they start speaking to you.”
It was hard sometimes, with celebrities like Duke Ellington and Pearl Bailey, frequenting White House parties and dinners. To this day, Bowen remembers conversations with presidents and first ladies – something that he still won’t repeat – another of his father’s codes of conduct while wearing White House tuxedos and tails.
“You don’t talk about things that happened on the job,” Bowen said.
A century before the Bowens, slaves who worked inside and outside the White House were known for their labors. Washington planner Pierre L’Enfant rented slaves from nearby slaveowners to dig the foundation for the White House, and White House designer James Hoben used some of his slave carpenters to build the White House.
President George Washington forced slaves from Mount Vernon to work as staff inside “the President’s House” in Philadelphia during his term, starting a tradition of enslaved men and women working for the president in his residence that would continue until the 1850s. Not only did they work in the White House, enslaved men and women lived there as well.
According to the White House Historical Association, the slave and servant quarters were in the basement, now called the ground floor. The rooms now include the library, china room, offices and the formal Diplomatic Reception Room. At least one African-American baby was born there, in 1806 to Fanny and Eddy, two of Jefferson’s slaves. The child, who was considered a slave too, died two years later.
History values these slaves for more than just their labor.
Paul Jennings, Madison’s personal slave, told the very first tale of White House life written by someone who lived there. Jennings, in his memoirs, debunked the oft-repeated White House legend of first lady Dolley Madison saving the portrait of Washington from invading British troops.
“This is totally false,” Jennings said. “She had no time for doing it. It would have required a ladder to get it down. All she carried off was the silver.”
Instead, a Frenchman, John Susé, and Magraw, the president’s gardener, took the painting down and sent it off on a wagon, said Jennings, who later in his life would give part of the money he earned as a freedman to help out a destitute Dolley Madison who suffered financially after the death of James Madison.
As the years progressed, the role of African Americans inside the White House also progressed.
Blacks moved from slaves at the White House to honored guests – President Abraham Lincoln met with abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth in the White House – to indispensable parts of White House life reflected in William Slade’s appointment by President Andrew Johnson as the very first White House steward, the person charged with running the domestic side of the White House.
Not only did blacks work in the White House, they also started working at the White House. E. Frederick Morrow was the first African American to be officially appointed a White House aide by Eisenhower in 1955; John F. Kennedy named Andrew Hatcher associate press secretary in 1960.
The progress was hardly smooth.
In 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt formally invited Booker T. Washington to the White House for dinner. But as Republican presidential candidate John McCain noted in his concession speech, Southern newspapers were outraged and condemned Roosevelt publicly after they learned of the invitation from an Associated Press dispatch. Roosevelt never invited another African American to a White House dinner again.
All the while, African-American domestic workers like John Pye kept the White House working smoothly behind the scenes.
“These are the folks who not only keep the leadership comfortable, but they make the White House into a home for those occupants, and they make government service more than tolerable for high-level staffers who are working long hours,” said Gail Lowe, senior historian at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum. “Without their eyewitness to history, we probably would not have as full a story as we have of the inner workings of the White House.”
The Smithsonian holds memorabilia belonging to John Pye, who worked as valet, messenger, driver, cook and butler in the White House during President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration.
Sometimes the workers also made history, Lowe said.
“When the first war bonds were issued in April 1942, President Roosevelt did a little presale as a publicity move, and the first person to whom he sold a war bond was John Pye,” said Lowe. “It cost
$18.75. And as President Roosevelt made his pitch for the war bonds – ‘This is to support our war effort. Our young men are serving overseas, They’re giving their lives, we can lend our money.’ –
And almost before the words were out of his mouth, John Pye had stepped forward to purchase the bond.”
Despite their contributions, blacks experienced racism even inside the White House.
Alonzo Fields, a former maitre ‘d who worked in the White House for 31 years, said they had segregated dining rooms for the workers at one point.
“I’m good enough to handle the president’s food – to handle the president’s food and do everything, but I cannot eat with the help,” Fields, who died in 1994, told the Smithsonian Institution Center for
Folklife Programs & Cultural Studies for its “Workers in the White House” project.
Pye faced at least one incident with Richard M. Nixon, then vice president, who came to him and asked about some leftover White House food.
Nixon said: “Boy, what are y’all going to do with the rest of the food,” Lowe said. “Mr. Pye did not like being called ‘boy’ and he didn’t like to be questioned about how the kitchen would deal with leftovers.”
Pye told him that the food went to charity, but it turned out Nixon wanted to eat the leftovers.
“Pye made sure they went to charitable organizations that day,” Lowe said.
Associated Press Writer Jesse J. Holland is the author of the book, “Black Men Built The Capitol: Discovering African American History In and Around Washington, D.C.”