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Blacks and the White House: Slavery and service

Jesse J. Holland

WASHINGTON — 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.

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 country’s 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 from Dwight D. Eisenhower’s day through the tenure of  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 to 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 slave owners 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.