Clarence Lusane’s The Black History of the White House

Black HistoryIn 2010 the Arizona legislature enacted HB 2281, which bans the teaching of courses in public schools that, among other things, treat people as “a group, rather than as individuals.” The intended effect of the law was clear immediately to journalists, educators, and students: ethnic studies courses, or history curricula that focus on the cultural history, evolution, and migration of different ethnic groups, were now illegal in Arizona outside of a small number of elite private schools. Since then, the law has been used to ban courses on hip-hop and Mexican-American history (Mexican-Americans are the fastest growing demographic in Arizona). The law is under review by a federal appeals court, which is expected to make a decision on its constitutionality any day now – though Oklahoma has recently tried to do Arizona one better by banning Advanced Placement American History courses because they “emphasize negative aspects of our nation’s history.”

None of this is likely a surprise to Clarence Lusane, who writes in The Black History of the White House (City Lights, 2011) that “For many Americans, it is an act of unacceptable subversion to criticize the nation’s founders, the founding documents, the presidency, the president’s house, and other institutions that have come to symbolize the official history of the United States.” Lusane’s account of the black presence at the White House revises our view of one of our most potent national symbols, unearthing a buried racial past of the American president’s household from the time of George Washington’s two terms in the 1790s, when the presidential mansion was located in Philadelphia and housed a number of Washington’s slaves, all the way up to the present White House, which marks the first time a black family has resided there officially yet (ironically) served as heads of an administration poised to leave office with an ambiguous legacy of progress on racial justice issues.

In fact, Lusane wrote his book as an attempt to understand the Obama White House and its precise historical significance. As a professor at American University in Washington D.C. and a longtime activist for racial equality, Lusane is well positioned to chronicle the still-developing black history of the Obama Administration while simultaneously comparing it to the forgotten intersection of the White House’s past with America’s history of racial inequality.

The activist in Lusane must have wanted to believe the media’s celebration of a “post-racial” future after Obama’s election. But the historian and son of 1960s Detroit knew better. In the midst of the 1967 riots in Detroit, Lusane’s family returned home from a fishing trip on Lake Michigan. They were trying to make their way through the city’s chaotic streets when white vigilantes opened fire on them, injuring Lusane’s mother and sister (you can watch Lusane talk about the impact of the Detroit riots here). Both fortunately survived, but the event was a visceral early lesson for Lusane on the hard reality of racism in the United States – a lesson that we can’t afford to stop learning. As suggested by Arizona’s vilification of the very kind of history that Lusane studies or by white conservatives’ objections over the portrayal of Lyndon Johnson in the movie Selma (which Lusane addresses here), the inauguration of a black president could hardly have heralded a future in which the black history of the White House no longer mattered.

clarencelusane whitehouse
Clarence Lusane at the White House.

Just some of the facts that form part of Lusane’s People’s History of the White House:

1. Twelve presidents were involved in the slave trade in some manner, and more than half of them kept slaves at the White House.

2. Not only the White House but Washington, D.C. itself was built by the labor of a number of slaves and black freedmen, of whom the most famous was Benjamin Banneker, a freedman, who did much of the surveying work in D.C. before any infrastructure was constructed on the land.

3. One of Dolly Madison’s former slaves, a freedman named Jennings, helped support the former first lady financially in her old age after the debts incurred by James Madison’s estate left his widow impoverished.

4. The first race riot occurred in Washington, D.C. in 1835, led by a white lynch mob unnerved by the recent Nat Turner slave rebellion and seeking to round up and kill free blacks and abolitionists in the nation’s capital.

5. Many 20th century presidents employed black cooks in the White House kitchen, a large number of them the same cooks that had fed and served those presidents in their family homes.

One of the most riveting narratives in Lusane’s book, though far from the only one, concerns Oney Judge, a woman enslaved by George Washington who escaped from him near the end of Washington’s second term in office. Fearing that the Washingtons would soon leave Philadelphia and return to their plantation in Mt. Vernon, Virginia, where it would be far more difficult for her to evade capture, Oney slipped out of the presidential mansion one evening while the Washingtons were sitting down to dinner (likely waiting for Oney to bring it to them):

Oney prepared for her freedom in steps. Before escaping, she first hid clothes and belongings with some of her free black friends in Philadelphia, and when the moment arrived, she went to them. Oney left Philadelphia for Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on a ship named Nancy captained by John Bolles. Portsmouth was a coastal city and a former center for the importation of slaves. Over time, however, slavery in Portsmouth diminished almost to nonexistence as the Atlantic slave trade vanished, slaves were freed or sold South, and abolitionism grew.

Although New Hampshire did not officially abolish slavery until 1857, by the time Oney arrived, its end was clearly at hand. The 1800 census listed only eight enslaved individuals living in the state. Portsmouth had also become an active area for abolitionism. While Oney found herself protected by blacks and others in the local community there, she was still very much in danger, because her escape to freedom violated national law and the Constitution itself. Under Article 4, Section 2 of the then less-than-10-year-old U.S. Constitution,

No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, But shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.

The U.S. Constitution’s concession to slaveholders, South and North, enforced slavery nationally irrespective of objections to the institution at the state level. For Oney this meant that she could be pursued or captured even in “free” states where slavery had been abolished. White enslavers were further bolstered by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which Washington signed into law – perhaps as Oney and others who were enslaved worked nearby.

Then ensued an elaborate series of attempts by the Washingtons to re-capture Oney Judge, all of which were foiled with the aid of the strong abolitionist networks active in New Hampshire. Oney eventually set up shop as a seamstress and married a sailor named Jack Haines with whom she had several children. She died in New Hampshire on February 25, 1848 – 75 years old and free, though still technically a fugitive from the family of a man who had once been the most powerful person in the country.

Lusane’s book flies in the face of present attempts to obscure or entirely erase important events like these from public memory. The stories contained in The Black History of the White House don’t seek to undermine faith in the power of American ideals – instead, they point the way to a firmer commitment to those ideals by demonstrating how easily they have been forgotten or ignored in the service of more expedient political goals and the preservation of destructive social conventions.

The Black History of the White House is available here at City Lights or wherever good books are sold. For more on Lusane, please visit the links cited above or check out his bio here at American University.

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