MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Mary Louise Kelly, in Washington. Neal Conan is away.
For many Americans, the White House is a symbol, of the presidency, of course, but also of an ideal, of justice and liberty. But a new history book contends that for many African-Americans the white of the White House also symbolizes the cruelty and exclusion that long defined race relations in this country.
The new book is called "The Black History Of the White House." It's by Clarence Lusane, and he traces the path of race relations in America by telling a very specific history, the stories of black Americans who have influenced the White House, from the slaves who actually built it through generations of servants and aides and activists, all the way through to today's president of the United States.
Well, if your family has a connection to the history of black Americans in the White House, or if you know somebody who does, tell us your story. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is email@example.com. And you can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and then click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in this hour, we'll hear from Egyptian-Americans who are watching events unfold in Cairo. But first, Clarence Lusane joins me now here in Studio 3A. He's associate professor of political science at American University in Washington, and he's written numerous books on race, politics and human rights. His most recent is the one we're going to be talking about, "The Black History Of the White House." Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
Professor CLARENCE LUSANE (American University): Thank you, I'm happy to be here.
KELLY: We're glad to have you here. And I have to say, I was hooked from the first sentence in your book, which is, and I'll read it: More than one in four U.S. presidents were involved in human trafficking and slavery. And it's astonishing. It makes sense historically, but it's still shocking to read that.
Prof. LUSANE: Well, sure. You know, most of us grew up learning history, and we learned about George Washington and the cherry tree and all that.
KELLY: The wooden teeth, yeah.
Prof. LUSANE: The wooden teeth. And some of us had some sense that - we knew Thomas Jefferson, because of the controversies around Sally Hemings. But everything else was kind of a blur.
And as it turns out, once you begin to do the research, then you see just the pervasiveness of how slavery really shaped the first third of the country's history and certainly impacted the White House and the occupants of the White House.
And so as I began to do my research and began to kind of uncover that history, it became very insightful in terms of getting a sense of how race relations didn't just happen outside of the government but actually drove in many ways the presidency up through Abraham Lincoln.
KELLY: Well, let me start with the founding fathers. You mentioned George Washington. And I think, you know, most Americans realized he and the other founding fathers owned slaves. In George Washington's case, he owned 10 slaves by the time he was 11 years old, you write. By the time he died, he owned more than 300 slaves.
You write about several of them, and I want to hear some of those stories. Let me ask you about one lady named Oney Judge. What's her story?
Prof. LUSANE: Now, Oney was one of the enslaved individuals who travelled with George Washington after he was elected president. The White House, or the president's house, didn't exist. And it was under the Congress, congressional mandate, it was agreed that it would be a 10-year period in which Washington, D.C. would be built. But during that period, the president had to live somewhere.
So initially, for a very short period, Washington was in New York, but then he took him and his household, which included Oney and others who were enslaved, to Philadelphia.
Now, as he got to Philadelphia, it turns out that he had a couple of problems, one with which that there was a law called the Gradual Abolition Act, which had been passed in 1780, which stated that any slave that was bought(ph) into the state, if they stayed for more than a six-month period, they could apply for manumission, to be free.
Washington apparently didn't know this before he came, and so this put him in a conflict. And he began to basically circulate his slaves in and out of the state to try to get around that ruling.
KELLY: And Oney Judge, who was a seamstress and a maid in the household, she learned about this and made up her mind to do something.
Prof. LUSANE: And she, of course, said you know, well, what really motivated her, she was mostly enslaved to Martha Washington, but what really motivated her was that she found out that Martha Washington was planning to give her away as a wedding gift to one of her relatives, which meant that any possibility she might have had of getting out of slavery - because the Washingtons promoted themselves as anti-slavery and talked about they would free the slaves upon their death, but if she went to someone else, she pretty much knew that was not going to happen.
But she was also inspired by the Haitian revolution, which had happened in the 1790s. And I think she was inspired by the American Revolution, because if you think about it, her and the other individuals who were enslaved were around Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison, as they're having these debates and these arguments about building this new country that's built on democracy, that's build on inclusion.
So it had to have an impact. So one evening, in 1796, before Washington's presidency ended in Philadelphia, while the Washingtons were sitting down to dinner, she went out the back door, because she had made contact with the local black community, and they helped her to escape.
Now, the story doesn't end there, because she's accidentally discovered to be in New Hampshire, and George Washington decides to go after her. Now, think about this. You escape from the most powerful individual in the country, who can send virtually anybody after you. That's the kind of courage that she had.
But Washington was also sort of embarrassed. So initially he sent someone to talk with her, to sit down and ask her to come back with the promise that eventually she would be free.
Her response was, well, I'm already free, and...
KELLY: Yeah, I'm not going back because you promised, yeah.
Prof. LUSANE: That's not going to fly. So then Washington tried to send someone to kidnap her. He sent his nephew, actually. She was warned. So she never was -never went back into slavery.
KELLY: So a lot of twists and turns, but yeah, as you say, she died a free woman.
Prof. LUSANE: But her story is so compelling, because you're starting with someone who starts off as a slave, someone who is as powerless as we tend to think people are, who, because the sense of freedom that she desires is so strong, she's willing to go up against the most powerful person in the country at the time.
KELLY: Well, as you write, during those years, as they were trying to build the White House and set up a permanent residence for the president here in Washington, D.C., it was mostly black hands - whether slaves or, in a few cases, freed blacks. But you write most, if not all, of the hands that built the White House - and later rebuilt it - were black.
Prof. LUSANE: Right. So while Washington's in Pennsylvania, meanwhile, D.C. is being built, the District of Columbia, which is ceded from Virginia and Maryland, two states that were slave states, because the Southerners who were part of the early government made sure that the seat of Washington, the seat of the nation's capital, would be in slave territory.
Now, Washington, who was actually kind of manager of building the city, initially wanted European labor. But it was very difficult to convince Europeans to come all the way over and cut down trees and do all the hard work. So eventually, they realized that they had to use slave labor.
But it's probably actually not that shocking because most of the large structures that were built in the country in that period were built with slave labor. But the White House, the Capitol and other government buildings were built by slave labor with probably some free labor in there. And certainly, there was white labor that was involved.
And it involved not only a kind of hard labor, and people who just did sort of manual work, but also skilled labor - carpenters, for example. We know for a fact that at least five of the carpenters who built the inside of the White House were slaves.
So we have some information on these individuals, including some of their names. But again, this is the kind of history that we were not taught when we grew up. And we just sort of accept the White House as an icon, as you mentioned at the opening. It - for people around the world - symbolizes democracy, symbolizes freedom. But it also embodies this other contradiction.
KELLY: We have a listener who's writing about another of the founding fathers, about John Adams. This is an email from Sue in El Cerrito, California. She writes: Just wanted to point out that John Adams, a founding father, was strongly opposed to slavery. He did not own slaves, worked his own farm with his own hands and wanted very much to abolish slavery as the Declaration of Independence was being penned.
Does that square with your research, Clarence Lusane?
Prof. LUSANE: Sure. Two of the individuals that stand out as presidents in that early period - John Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams - were both from very strong anti-slavery families. And they didn't own slaves, and they were against slavery.
However, as presidents, they did actually very, very little to challenge the slave system. Now, John Quincy Adams, as many people know, after he left the presidency and actually came back and became a Congress member, became one of the most fiercest fighters for the anti-slavery cause.
The Amistad crisis, for example, when a ship that was initially in Cuba was taken over by people who were enslaved, and then they were brought to the U.S., and there was a famous trial, John Quincy Adams was very important in getting freedom for those individuals.
So after he was president, he was very effective. But while John Adams and John Quincy Adams were president, there's not a lot that they did.
KELLY: All right. Let me see if we can get a caller in on the conversation here. This is Cheryl(ph) on the line from Jacksonville, Florida.
Cheryl, you're on the air.
CHERYL (Caller): Hi.
CHERYL: Thanks for having me on. I pretty much have a comment, not so much as a question. Back when I was in eighth grade, we went to Washington, D.C., and we actually visited the home of George Washington, which - I think that was, and saw the slave quarters.
And for me, it was kind of disheartening because, you know, he's supposed to have been one of the forefathers, and so forth. And it was kind of disheartening to me. And almost, at that time - which was probably around, I want to say the late '80s - I don't know, embarrassing, if I could say that.
But if - and what - from that, it inspired me to see who else, what other presidents owned slaves. Well, in learning about the presidents, my maiden name is Madison, and there was a President Madison who was the fourth president of the United States, and he, too, owned slaves. And I've always wondered: Were his slaves that he owned, were they my ancestors? And I haven't really ever tried to track that or trace that at all, and I've just always been intrigued about it.
KELLY: All right. Cheryl, thank you so much for your call. I'm going to ask you to hang on, and we will come back to you. We're going to be talking more with Clarence Lusane in a moment and talking some about your observations there.
We're talking about Clarence Lusane's new book, "The Black History of the White House." You can call us if you have a connection to the history of black Americans in the White House. We're at 800-989-8255. Or you can email us. We're at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I'm Mary Louise Kelly, and this is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
KELLY: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.
We're talking with Clarence Lusane about his latest book, "The Black History of the White House." That history is documented in a series of photographs, from White House maids to civil rights leaders to President Obama himself. You can see a slideshow of images at npr.org, and then click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Until recently, almost all of the White House butlers were African-American. Lynwood Westray spent three decades in that position, and our Michele Norris spoke with him shortly before President Obama's inauguration in 2009. She asked him what that moment might mean to the many White House butlers and stewards.
Mr. LYNWOOD WESTRAY (Former White House Butler): I'll put it this way: A lot of black folks, especially, were wondering if it was going to ever happen. And here it is, happening. And they're tickled to death. And I'm surely happy. I wish I was 30 years younger, so I would be down there now when he came in because, let's see, I worked for eight presidents, so - and a ninth one wouldn't have hurt. And I would like to have been there.
KELLY: That's former White House butler Lynwood Westray, speaking with NPR's Michelle Obama - Michele Norris, just before President Obama moved into the White House.
Now, if your family has a connection to the history of black Americans in the White House, or if you know someone who does, tell us your story. We're at 800-989-8255. Or you can send us an email at email@example.com.
And we're back with Clarence Lusane. And we were just hearing some comments from Cheryl on the line from Jacksonville in Florida talking about how it was a little disheartening to contemplate what this history was with some of the founding fathers.
I wonder for you, Clarence Lusane, are you still able to respect them, given everything you learned in researching the history of this book? How do you square what they said they thought with their actual actions?
Prof. LUSANE: Well, prior to writing this book, you know, I had some general sense of black history relative to the presidents. So I knew that -particularly with George Washington. But what I found, there were basically kind of three categories. There were those presidents that were just absolutely pro-slavery all the way - people like Jackson, for example. But then you had presidents kind of like Washington, Thomas Jefferson, who were anti-slavery in terms of their own sort of personal whim, but were not necessarily pro-abolition. And therefore, in terms of the policy initiatives that they took in their politics, they did not do a lot to basically bring slavery to an end, and essentially seemed to hope that, at some point, it would wither away.
And then finally, you get those political leaders - and ultimately, Lincoln becomes one of them - who recognized that it's not just enough to be anti-slavery, but actually slavery actually has to go. And you actually then have radicals in the Republican Party by the 1850s, 1860s, who also struggled for equality and struggled for not only ending slavery, but taking the people who were in slavery and bringing them into the society in a way which there is support and there is ways in which to benefit - they can benefit from all of the years in which they had been enslaved.
And so the Freedman's Bank, schools that were built, there were a number of initiatives that were taken during the Reconstruction period specifically to try to address those decades and decades of oppression and slavery that had existed.
KELLY: All right, and Cheryl in Jacksonville, I'm going to let you go. I hope that helped answer your question, and thanks so much for the call.
CHERYL: Well, thank you.
Prof. LUSANE: Thank you, Cheryl.
KELLY: You mentioned President Lincoln, who is, of course, celebrated for his role in helping to end slavery and for signing the Emancipation Proclamation. But you also paint a very nuanced picture of him. Like many past presidents, he actually had a lot of inner conflict, it seems like, about how he viewed race relations in the country.
Prof. LUSANE: Yeah, Lincoln, as we know from the literally thousands of books that have been written about him, was a very complex individual. What strikes me most is, individually, Lincoln grew. And while he was certainly anti-slavery with some degree of complications around that - particularly in terms of reflecting, essentially, the ethos of his time - he also grew.
But probably more importantly, the circumstances in which Lincoln found himself - and this is a critical point I try to bring to the book - is that it's not just an individual whim of the president, but it really is a confluence of a range of circumstances, you respond in a particular way.
And Lincoln responded ultimately in a way that led to emancipation and led to the abolition of slavery. And that really is significant, I think, because Lincoln didn't start off with and didn't start the Civil War with the perspective that slavery had to end, and he didn't necessarily have to go there.
But as the war evolved, as he began to have conversations with people like Frederick Douglass, as the necessities of war demanded that African-Americans be brought in, inch by inch, Lincoln moved in that direction. And by the time Lincoln died, I would argue he clearly had - was a very different person than when he came into office.
KELLY: You dug out an interesting story in your Lincoln research, which is the friendship between the first lady, Mary Lincoln, and a black woman named Elizabeth Keckley. You discovered that when President Lincoln was shot, the first person that Mary Lincoln actually tried to find to help her was this friend of hers, Elizabeth Keckley.
Prof. LUSANE: Yeah, and Elizabeth Keckley is just a fascinating individual. You know, there's been a lot of research done on her, and part of that is because she, herself, wrote a book about her White House experiences.
She was born into slavery, but eventually was able to buy her way out. And she came to Washington, D.C. She worked as a dressmaker and had her own business. So she was an individual businesswoman who actually initially worked for Varina Davis, who is the wife of Jefferson Davis, who became president of the Confederacy.
And as 1860, 1861 unfolds, and all of the Southern Congress members are leaving, she's actually asked to go with the Davises to leave Washington. And she declines, in part because, of course, she doesn't support the South in its defense of slavery. But also, she has a much broader view.
And then by chance, she meets Mary Lincoln, and her and Mary Lincoln basically become best friends. And partially because as two strong-willed, independent women, they're fighting on many different fronts just to kind of hold their own. So they support each other. They fill each other, and they become friends and stay friends most of their lives.
There's a rupture at some point because when Elizabeth publishes her book, Mary kind of feels that there is too much personal information. But they were very, very tight, and the circumstances that they found themselves in were very difficult.
KELLY: A quick Lincoln-related question here before we move on. This is an email from listener Tim Tarver(ph), who writes: Pictures of Lincoln's first inauguration show the dome of the Capitol under construction. Was slave labor used to finish the dome during his administration?
Do you know?
Prof. LUSANE: Yeah, slave labor was actually involved in one particular way, in the Statue of Freedom that's at the top of the dome. At one point, that statue had to be put together. The person who originally designed it actually died.
And it was shipped over from Europe, and it was thought that no one else in the country could put it together except one - I think it was a guy, an Italian guy. And he essentially tried to blackmail the government around it. And then they actually found a person who was a slave who actually put it together and came up with some very innovative kind of technique.
And so the Statue of Freedom - and there's a whole history around the Statue of Freedom itself. But the Capitol - after 1814, when the Capitol was destroyed and the White House, the internal side of the White House and much of the outside was destroyed, black labor was brought in to be part of that rebuilding process.
KELLY: All right. Well, let's get a caller in the mix here. This is Danny on the line from Charleston, South Carolina.
Hi, Danny. Thanks for calling.
DANNY (Caller): Hey, thanks for taking my call, and thank you to your guest. It's a fascinating topic, and I look forward to reading the book.
My comment and my question was: Here in Charleston, we have quite a few historic locations that have been preserved (technical difficulties) job in making sure to also include accurate descriptions (technical difficulties) showing slave quarters, and are doing a much broader job of telling the bigger story.
I wonder if the same (technical difficulties) I was in grade school. But now that we know some of the names of the slave artisans and, again, the larger story, is any of that being incorporated into the (technical difficulties)?
KELLY: Okay, Danny, your phone line's a little hard to hear. So let me recap and hopefully capture the gist of what you were asking. You're talking about plantations down where you are in South Carolina now trying to tell the fuller story of their history and how slave labor factored in, asking whether the White House could make more of an effort to tell the black history of its occupants.
Prof. LUSANE: Well, I certainly hope the White House will. In - about a month or so ago, the President's House exhibit opened in Philadelphia. Now, this is an exhibit that initially started off as - for the Liberty Bell. The Liberty Bell was moved to a new pavilion. And as it turns out, where they were going to construct the pavilion was at the property where President Washington had lived and more - and importantly, where his slaves had lived as well. So activists in the black community in Philadelphia, as well as some elected leaders and others, became mobilized and wanted to make sure that that history was part of the president's house. And so a new exhibit has just opened that, for the first time in the history of the country, commemorates these people who were enslaved who were part of the president's household. And so that's the only one that exists in the country.
Certainly, it will be extremely important, particularly over the next four years as we're in the 150th anniversary years of the Civil War, that as much accurate information as possible is put out and discussion is held because there really is one side that wants to argue that slavery was a side issue in the Civil War. But all of the facts contradict that. And part of being able to understand that, is to be - is to look at the historic documents. For example, in South Carolina, the secessionist's declaration. But also in Mississippi, in North Carolina, in all of the states that succeeded(ph), they all specifically talk about slavery as the driving cause. So there really is evidence on the other side. And I think it's really going to be important in the next four years to really have these open discussions.
KELLY: Okay. Danny, thanks very much for your call. We appreciate it. Secession
Prof. LUSANE: Thank you, Danny.
KELLY: Let me - there's obviously so much fascinating detail on your book that we could work out way through. But I want to bring us up to today and where we are now after all of this fascinating history that you've dug out with an African American family running the White House, a black president of the United States.
You write in the book that as historic a moment as Barack Obama's inauguration was, that many of his supporters, in hindsight, were perhaps naive about what his election would be able to bring about in terms of radical change for race relations in America. Do you think expectations were simply too high, or simply too high for what this might mean to black Americans?
Prof. LUSANE: Well, I think expectations were high, in part, not only because for African Americans, Obama is black, but also because what was expected from his administration being very different from the previous administration. And so in that sense, not just African Americans but working people, peace activists, anti-war activists, environmentalists all had very high hopes that the country would move in a different direction following the eight years of Bush.
The reality is that we're in a constitutional democracy and the ability of any president to negotiate and navigate, dealing with Congress, dealing with the courts, is a very herculean task. And so in many ways, the reality has set in in the last two years and particularly the balance between the Democrats and the Republicans has meant that many of the initiatives that people hope would happen under the president, whether he's black or white, have been stymied.
But I think, in the broader sense, the symbolism that Obama represents - not just to African Americans but people around the world - this one was the thing that was fascinating for me in 2007, 2008 as I traveled from Brazil to South Korea to England, the interest, the passionate interest that people had in the possibility of Obama winning the presidency and all that that meant, even without all of the details of the history, the general sense of people who were enslaved for centuries will be able, at some point, to produce someone who can be the national leader.
KELLY: Okay. We're talking with Clarence Lusane about his new book, "The Black History of the White House."
And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Clarence Lusane, a couple of emails I want to work into our conversation here. Lots of emails coming in about your book and about its subject. Here's one. This is from Ray Windsor in Canada. He writes: another great history lesson and a very interesting show. But I'm so impressed by the photos there. Just amazing. They really stir your imagination. Thank you.
Well, we thank you, Ray. He's talking about the slideshow that is up on our website, npr.org, which has pictures of some of the characters we're talking about and some of these interesting moments in "The Black History of the White House."
Another email coming in, this is from John in Cleveland, writing about John Adams. And he writes: I feel that the reason John Adams and John Quincy Adams did not aggressively pursue the abolition movement while in office is that they realized they would've been overpowered by the South in Congress. And if they would've acted, otherwise, like Lincoln did, then this country would surely have died early and reverted to England. Don't forget they had the War of 1812 to contend with also, which was England's revenge for the revolution. So do not discount those two for not acting on the subject. It would've thrown this country into an earlier civil war in the nation.
I wonder, you know, take a comment like that and think about the political constraints that early presidents were operating under, that President Obama operates under, in terms of trying to tackle race relations and stir things to the next level here in this country.
Prof. LUSANE: Well, all I can say is we don't know what would have happened.
Prof. LUSANE: And I don't think it's - it doesn't have to be the extreme of either it was going to be totally fighting the country in slavery or just accept slavery. And what was missing were, I think, a perspective and an argument that slavery really contradicted the principles that were being articulated by the Founding Fathers, by the Declaration of Independence, by the Constitution. And so, if that contradiction exists, then it was incumbent upon the leaders of the country to try to figure a way out. But what we saw, for 70 years after the American Revolution, was mostly concessions to the South.
KELLY: All right. That's Clarence Lusane. He's professor of political science at American University. And we've been talking about his latest book, "The Black History of the White House." You can read an excerpt at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. And thanks so much for joining us.
Prof. LUSANE: Thank you.
KELLY: We really appreciate it.
Prof. LUSANE: Thank you, audience.
KELLY: Up next, we're going to be watching Egypt. Many Egyptian-Americans are glued to their TVs, following the events unfolding this week. If you are one of them, tell us what does this moment mean to you? Call 1-800-989-8255 or email us. We're at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I'm Mary Louise Kelly. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.