NPR logo

White House, Black History

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
White House, Black History

White House, Black History

White House, Black History

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Did you know that George Washington schemed around a Pennsylvania law that would have forced him to free some of his slaves — or that Herbert Hoover demanded that White House servants hide when he walked by? Two new books explore the long, complex relationship between African Americans and the White House. They include stories of when slaves laid the foundation of the new presidential residence in Washington as well as how blacks interact with those they served at the White House. Host Michel Martin speaks with authors: Clarence Lusane, associate professor at American University's School of International Service and author of "The Black History of the White House" and Kenneth Walsh, one of the longest serving White House correspondents, who writes for U.S. News and World Report; he is the author of "Family of Freedom."


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Get ready to rock again. We have an encore presentation of our performance chat with Scottish singer and songwriter KT Tunstall. That is later in the program.

But first, it's President's Day, a time when we remember the men, and to this point they've been all men, who occupied the highest elected office in this country. And we consider their contributions to the history of the United States. And it's still Black History Month, so we thought it would be interesting to look at the relationship between presidents and African-Americans dating back to the founding of this country. It's a history that's fascinated both of our guests today in different ways.

Clarence Lusane is an associate professor at American University School of International Service. His latest book is "The Black History of the White House," and it takes a close look at the history of the White House from an African-American perspective.

Also joining us Kenneth T. Walsh. He is one of the longest serving White House correspondence in history. He's worked there full time since 1986 writing for U.S. News and World Report. His latest book, "Family of Freedom: Presidents and African-Americans in the White House," takes a look at the personal relationships many of the nation's presidents had with African-Americans.

And they're both here with us now. Thank you so much for joining us on this President's Day.

Professor CLARENCE LUSANE (American University School of International Service): Thank you.

Mr. KENNETH T. WALSH (White House Correspondent): Great to be here.

MARTIN: You know, it's interesting that both of you chose this particular tack at this point in our history. And I'm wondering if the election of the first African-American president is part of what sparked this thought. Clarence, do you want to start?

Prof. LUSANE: Yes, certainly that was part of my motivation. But, also, as I traveled in 2007, 2008, not only in the U.S., but around the world, I was constantly being asked by people, can Barack Obama win? What does it mean to have African-American as president? But also questions about the White House. One being, why is it called the White House. And so given that...

MARTIN: It's almost - it's a metaphor as well as a physical space.

Prof. LUSANE: Exactly. And then I realized that, actually, I had no idea why it was called White House other than it looked white, but as a scholar you know there's more to it. And so that sort of began the initiation of starting to do the investigation.

MARTIN: Interesting. Ken Walsh, what about you?

Mr. WALSH: As a White House correspondent, I'm always looking for ways to look behind the curtain and to see what the president's are really like. In this case, it seemed to me that this was a good vehicle to look at the presidents behind the scenes. And the second point is, as Clarence said, is this idea that we have the African-American president. So the question naturally arises, well, what about other African-Americans in the White House?

MARTIN: Who are actually in the White House.

Mr. WALSH: Who were in the White House from slavery times to Barack Obama. What's the history? And it's a simple question, but it's a fascinating answer.

MARTIN: You both make the point that a quarter of all the presidents of the United States, which was of course founded on the idea of freedom, both individual freedom and sort of a corporate freedom of the country, that a quarter of all the presidents were slaveholders.

Professor Lusane, I'm going to read from the opening of your book. You say that more than one in four U.S. presidents were involved in human trafficking and slavery. These presidents bought, sold, bred and enslaved black people for profit. Of the 12 presidents who were enslavers, more than half kept people in bondage at the White House.

And you said that for this reason, there's little doubt that the first person of African descent to enter the White House or the presidential homes used in New York before the construction of the White House was an enslaved person. Do you think that people are surprised to hear that?

Prof. LUSANE: I think so, because that hasn't been part of the way in which we've been taught about the presidents. Now, there may have been some sense of Jefferson and Washington because they're pretty well known to have had slaves. And what's significant about that is that compromise and that engagement also then shaped the country's policies around slavery and around race.

MARTIN: They didn't think there was anything wrong with it?

Prof. LUSANE: Well, we had different categories. You had some presidents who were extremely pro-slavery, like, Jackson, for example. But then you had presidents who saw themselves personally as anti-slavery, but they were not necessarily pro-abolition. So, Jefferson, Washington, a number of presidents, using a number of different justifications, felt that abolition was not the way to go, but that they hoped at some point that slavery would, eventually it would fade away.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We are celebrating this President's Day with two guests who have dug deeply into the relationship between the presidents throughout history and African-Americans both personally and politically. Our guests are Professor Clarence Lusane, author of "The Black History of the White House" and Ken Walsh, the author of "Family of Freedom: Presidents and African-Americans in the White House."

Ken Walsh, you tell a fascinating story of actually the lengths to which George Washington went to hold onto his slaves in violation of the law in Philadelphia, where the presidency was at one point housed. Would you talk a little bit about that?

Mr. WALSH: As Clarence said, the early presidents, you know, I saw it a little bit differently in that I was looking at the White House, per se. And 8 of the first 12 presidents had slaves in the White House. Many of our others presidents had slaves, but these people had them in the White House.

But the point you're raising, Washington realized that there was a law in Pennsylvania that allowed slaves to be free if they were in the state for six months. So he surreptitiously decided to send his slaves back to Mount Vernon within that six-month window so that they wouldn't become free.

And these early presidents had this notion, maybe they came to it late in life as Washington did, that slavery was wrong, but they didn't do anything about it politically because they didn't want to alienate the southern states. And we've seen that pattern through our history - all through our history in the United States.

And, secondly, they didn't want to disrupt their own livelihoods because they felt that slavery was essential to the running of their plantations. And that's - so they kept slavery and didn't really challenge it.

MARTIN: Well, you talked about the fact that this was a deliberate stratagem in Washington's part. You've delved very deeply into his correspondence in this matter.

Mr. WALSH: Right.

MARTIN: That shows that he was deliberately swapping out people to avoid the law.

Mr. WALSH: He was. Right. And the people who he was talking to to help him arrange this sort of shuttle of his slaves, he said, don't let anybody know about this. I want this to be deceptive. He was very open about that to his friends and within his family. He didn't want the public to know because he didn't want to have any question about his own integrity and yet he was defying the law.

This is supposed to one of the great icons of American history, but we see this again and again that our presidents really did not live up to the early ideals of the country through most of our history.

MARTIN: And, Clarence, he did not fully succeed. Will you tell that story? Actually, I found it rather heartbreaking as a mother, but tell me that story.

Prof. LUSANE: Yeah, what Kenneth is referring to is the Gradual Abolition Act, which basically said people could be free if they stay six months. But there's a loophole that if people left, then - and they came back, it would always start over. So that's why, as Kenneth was pointing out, they were doing the rotation.

But there were at least two people who were in Washington's household while he was in Pennsylvania, who escaped. One was a woman named Ona Maria Judge. Fascinating young woman, early 20s, had mostly been enslaved to Martha Washington - would clean for her, dress her, help cook. She found out at one point that Martha was planning to give her away as a wedding gift to one of her relatives.

And so, she decided that that would mean she probably would never get out of slavery. Because the Washingtons had kind of promised that once they died, they would free people who were enslaved to them. But if she was being sold or given away, that was not going to happen. So she made plans to escape. She was in touch with the free black community in Pennsylvania. And then one day in the spring of 1796, she took off.

The Washingtons actually discovered where she was at. She ended up in New Hampshire. And Washington sent his nephew to try to coax her to come back. And he met with her and sat down and said, you know, basically things got out of control, but if you come back, we'll basically set you free eventually. And her response was, well, I'm free now.

Mr. WALSH: Right.

Prof. LUSANE: That really doesn't work and...

MARTIN: And Martha was outraged at the ingratitude of this slave. And there's another person who escaped even at the cost of leaving his daughter. Will you tell that story?

Prof. LUSANE: Hercules. Hercules was Washington's cook who was actually one of the most famous cooks in the country at the time and was extremely well known. But Hercules also took off towards the end of Washington's presidency in 1797.

MARTIN: And then what happened? You both quote this in your story, which, as I said, as a mother, I found heartbreaking. At some point had occasion to ask the child if she missed her dad. And what did she say?

Prof. LUSANE: Right. It was a little girl and there was a visitor from France. And he knew that Hercules had escaped, so he asked the little girl, did she feel sad? And her response was, like, no, I'm happy that my father is free.

Mr. WALSH: Yeah. Well, yeah, I actually, you know, I remember this line. She said, I miss my father, but I know that he is free and so I'm happy for him.

Prof. LUSANE: Right.

Mr. WALSH: It is a very poignant moment.

MARTIN: And (unintelligible). So, Ken Walsh, when did the practice of holding slaves in the White House, enslaved Americans, let's put it that way, when did that practice end?

Mr. WALSH: Well, Zachary Taylor was the last president to have slaves in the White House. And he died, I believe, in about 1850. But succeeding presidents had had slaves earlier in their lives. People don't realize that, for instance, Grant, Ulysses Grant, the hero general of the Civil War, had had slaves earlier in his life. So did Andrew Johnson. This was a very common thing for American presidents.

But Lincoln had amazing relationships with the African-Americans around him during the Civil War. These were emancipated African-Americans. A seamstress named Elizabeth Keckly and a valet named William Slade. And a lot of historians are particularly interested in William Slade because Lincoln actually consulted Slade on his major speeches, including the Gettysburg Address.

He brought Slade with him to Gettysburg. And the night before the Gettysburg Address, he ran the most important lines and themes past Slade because he respected his judgment and thought he understood what everyday people would think and what themes would be resonant.

So it's really quite remarkable that he had this confidence in this African-American on his staff. But this has been common throughout our history. The people on the household staff have been confidantes and very much trusted by the presidents throughout American history.

MARTIN: Well, you talk about the fact that subsequently in the emancipation era that there are presidents who insisted that their household staffs not be seen.

Mr. WALSH: Right.

MARTIN: That they literally, what? What were they supposed to do, disappear?

Mr. WALSH: Yeah. It's a very interesting insight into both the presidents as individuals and sort of our racial history. A good example was Herbert Hoover. He did not want the staff to see him and he didn't want to see the staff as he walked around the White House, nor did his wife.

So the staff developed this pattern of hiding from him when they heard his footsteps. And the staff members told stories about they understood the president was coming, sometimes they'd ring a bell a couple of times that it was the president, three times if it was the first lady. And they'd pile into closets, they'd hide behind bushes so the president couldn't see them.

But President Hoover made the point that he wanted a sense of privacy. I mean even though it really is a false sense, because people were observing him, but he wanted a sense of privacy. Franklin Roosevelt sort of kept the pattern up, but when Harry Truman came into the White House. He asked, well, why are these people hiding behind the bushes and peeping at me? And then people explained the history. And so he said, well, they don't have to do that anymore.

When Eisenhower came in, it had slipped back to that pattern again and he asked, why don't people do any work around here? Because he never saw anybody working, so he said, stop all that nonsense, you know, let people go about their business. But it just showed this strange artificial pattern that some presidents had in dealing with the staff.

MARTIN: We need to take a short break. But when we come back, we'll continue this President's Day discussion with Professor Clarence Lusane, author of "The Black History of the White House" and Kenneth Walsh, longtime White House correspondent. And his latest book is "Family of Freedom: Presidents and African-Americans in the White House."

Please stay with us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Coming up, another perspective on the tiger mother. We've heard an awful lot about a new book that describes the benefits of a super strict parenting style. Later, we'll hear a very different perspective from the son of Vietnamese immigrants. That book is called "I Love Yous are for White People." We'll have that conversation just ahead.

But first, on this President's Day, we're speaking with two authors who have separately explored the history of the relationships between American presidents and African-Americans. That relationship both the personal and the political. Our guests are Clarence Lusane. He's an associate professor at American University School of International Service. The author of "The Black History of the White House."

Also with us, Kenneth T. Walsh, one of the longest serving White House correspondents in history. He writes for U.S. News and World Report. And his book is called "Family of Freedom: Presidents and African-Americans in the White House."

You talked, Clarence, in your book a lot about how controversial it was for some presidents to even entertain African-Americans at the White House, to be perceived as entertaining them as equals. But do you feel that as history progressed, that these relationships did influence policy in any direction or another? Ken, do you want to speak to that?

Mr. WALSH: Yeah. I think so. I mean, you can see some cases, for instance, Lincoln, when he was president, he actually commuted to a place called the Soldier's Home. And during that commute, which was three miles from the White House, he would stop sometimes in what they called contraband camps, camps for freed slaves. And I found some very moving accounts of this.

He would show up and, you know, they'd see his carriage and the cavalry, the dust being kicked up in the distance. The folks would line up in their best clothes, often the men would be wearing uniforms from both Confederates and Union soldiers taken from battlefields. They'd line up and they'd sing spirituals to the president. He was moved to tears many times. And this dramatized the whole issue of slavery for Lincoln.

And historians think that this probably had a lot to do with how emotionally connected he became to the issue of emancipation and slavery. And then, just very quickly, fast forward, Lyndon Johnson had strong connections to the African-Americans on his household staff. Saw the discrimination they went through, particularly his cook, Zephyr Wright. And that moved him, along with a lot of other things, in the direction of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

MARTIN: There's a funny story you have in your book about his valet and he was so rude to him at first that he thought he might have to quit, but then he realized that he's just mean to everybody, not just him.

Mr. WALSH: Mean to everybody. That's right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Clarence, did you want to add to that on that question of whether you think these personal relationships did influence policy in any way?

Prof. LUSANE: I think as Kenneth pointed out, in very few instances, prior to the Civil War, virtually no president, even the presidents who did not have slaves, the Adams, for example, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, as presidents, did virtually nothing to really address the issue of ending slavery and pushing forward on our racial progress.

And then after the Civil War, there were pockets of advances that happened. Those are mostly driven by circumstances outside of the president. And so it's not really until we get to the '60s, which I think Kennedy, for example, Johnson, for example, those are presidents whose relationships are not only personal, but also very strong policy in political relationships. And I think that begins to really shape the president's intervention into the area.

MARTIN: Ken Walsh, before we let you each go, you had the opportunity to interview President Obama for this book.

Mr. WALSH: Right.

MARTIN: Just tell us a little bit about what his perspective on this is. It's interesting.

Mr. WALSH: Well, in my work as the White House correspondent for U.S. News, I've interviewed him for the magazine. But for the book I had a separate interview with him. And I asked him just point blank about why doesn't he have an African-American agenda as the first African-American president?

And his answer was, the best agenda for African-Americans, even though African-Americans are not benefiting from whatever is going on in the economy that's positive as white Americans are, but he said his policies will help everybody.

And I think President Obama doesn't want to be thought of that way. He wants to be thought of as someone who's everybody's president. Now, if he's elected to a second term, I suspect that that might change. He would have more of an African-American agenda. But for now, he says he's trying to run a race neutral administration.

MARTIN: Interesting. And Professor Lusane, you did not get a chance to interview President Obama for your book, but you are invited to the White House next week to talk about it for Black History Month.

Prof. LUSANE: Right.

MARTIN: So, I'm just interested, Clarence, a final thought about what message you think you'll have when you have the opportunity to visit the White House next week. And I don't know what happened to my invitation, but...

Prof. LUSANE: Well, part of it will be I will be addressing the staff of the White House. And so, part of what I'm interested in learning is also those stories, because as Kenneth will tell you, often, it's generations that work at the White House. So I think it's time that those stories really get captured perhaps in a permanent way in terms of, for example, at the Washington - the White House Historical Association.

MARTIN: Clarence Lusane is an associate professor at American University School of International Service. He's the author of "The Black History of the White House."

Kenneth T. Walsh is the chief White House correspondent for U.S. News and World report. He's on of the longest serving White House correspondents in history. His latest book is "Family of Freedom: Presidents and African-Americans in the White House. And they were both kind enough to join us here on this President's Day in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you both so much for joining us.

Mr. WALSH: Thank you.

Prof. LUSANE: Thank you.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.