If We Knew Our History Series

Missing from Presidents’ Day: The People They Enslaved February 12, 2014

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group_passing_capital_wcaption2By Clarence Lusane

Schools across the country are adorned with posters of the 44 U.S. presidents and the years they served in office. U.S. history textbooks describe the accomplishments and challenges of the major presidential administrations—George Washington had the Revolutionary War, Abraham Lincoln the Civil War, Teddy Roosevelt the Spanish-American War, and so on. Children’s books put students on a first-name basis with the presidents, engaging readers with stories of their dogs in the Rose Garden or childhood escapades. Washington, D.C.’s Smithsonian Institution welcomes visitors to an exhibit of the first ladies’ gowns and White House furnishings.

Nowhere in all this information is there any mention of the fact that more than one in four U.S. presidents were involved in human trafficking and slavery. These presidents bought, sold, and bred enslaved people for profit. Of the 12 presidents who were enslavers, more than half kept people in bondage at the White House. For this reason, there is little doubt that the first person of African descent to enter the White House—or the presidential homes used in New York (1788–90) and Philadelphia (1790–1800) before construction of the White House was complete—was an enslaved person.

The White House itself, the home of presidents and quintessential symbol of the U.S. presidency, was built with slave labor, just like most other major building projects had been in the 18th-century United States, including many of our most famous buildings like Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, Boston’s Faneuil Hall, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, and James Madison’s Montpelier. President Washington initially wanted to hire foreign labor to build the White House, but when he realized how costly it would be to pay people fairly, he resorted to slave labor.

Constructed in part by black slave labor, the home and office of the president of the United States has embodied different principles for different people. For whites, whose social privileges and political rights have been protected by the laws of the land, the White House has symbolized the power of freedom and democracy over monarchy. For blacks, whose history is rooted in slavery and the struggle against white domination, the symbolic power of the White House has shifted along with each president’s relation to black citizenship. For many whites and people of color, the White House has symbolized the supremacy of white people both domestically and internationally. U.S. nativists with colonizing and imperialist aspirations understood the symbolism of the White House as a projection of that supremacy on a global scale. This idea is embodied in the building project itself.

Although the White House is symbolically significant, there is a largely hidden and silenced black history of the U.S. presidency. Here are just a few examples.

pres_washington_fieldworkers_v4George Washington’s stated antislavery convictions misaligned with his actual political behavior. While professing to abhor slavery and hope for its eventual demise, as president Washington took no real steps in that direction and in fact did everything he could to ensure that not one of the more than 300 people he owned could secure their freedom. During the 10 years of construction of the White House, George Washington spent time in Philadelphia where a law called the Gradual Abolition Act passed in 1780. It stated that any slaves brought into the state were eligible to apply for their freedom if they were there for longer than six months. To get around the law, Washington rotated the people working for him in bondage so that they were there for less than six months each.

Oney_Judge_Runaway_Ad_wcaption2Despite Washington’s reluctance to carry out his stated antislavery predilections, the movement against slavery grew anyway, including within the president’s very own household among the men and women he enslaved. One of the presidential slaves was Ona “Oney” Maria Judge. In March 1796 (the year before Washington’s second term in office ended), Oney was told that she would be given to Martha Washington’s granddaughter as a wedding present. Oney carefully planned her escape and slipped out of the Washingtons’ home in Philadelphia while the Washingtons were eating dinner. Oney Judge fled the most powerful man in the United States, defied his attempts to trick her back into slavery, and lived out a better life. After her successful attempt became widely known, she was a celebrity of sorts. Her escape from the Washingtons fascinated journalists, writers, and others, but more important, it was an inspiration to the abolition movement and other African Americans who were being enslaved by whites.

pauljennings_wcaption3By the age of 10, Paul Jennings was enslaved at the White House as a footman for James Madison, the fourth president of the United States. When he got older, Dolley Madison hired out Jennings, keeping every “last red cent” of his earnings. Dolley indicated in her will that she would give Jennings his freedom, but instead sold him before she died. Thankfully, Daniel Webster intervened and purchased his freedom. Soon after, Paul Jennings helped plan one of the most ambitious and daring efforts to liberate enslaved blacks in U.S. history, the Pearl Affair. It was not successful, but as with John Brown’s raid, the political repercussions lasted for decades and strengthened the abolitionist cause. Paul Jennings went on to become the first person to write a memoir of a firsthand experience working in the White House.

In textbooks and popular history, the White House is figuratively constructed as a repository of democratic aspirations, high principles, and ethical values. For many Americans, it is subversive 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 story of the United States. It may be uncomfortable to give up long-held and even meaningful beliefs that in many ways build both collective and personal identities. However, erasing enslaved African Americans from the White House and the presidency presents a false portrait of our country’s history. If young people—and all the rest of us—are to understand a fuller, people’s history of the United States, they need to recognize that every aspect of early America was built on slavery.


bhwhclarence_lusaneDr. Clarence Lusane is a professor and chairs the Department of Political Science at Howard University. He teaches courses in comparative race relations, modern social movements, comparative politics of the Americas and Europe, and jazz and international relations. He is a national columnist for the Black Voices syndicated news network. Lusane has authored a number of books including The Black History of the White House (City Lights, 2010). This article is part of the Zinn Education Project If We Knew Our History series.


if_we_knew_bannerThis article is part of the Zinn Education Project’s
If We Knew Our History

© 2014 The Zinn Education Project.

Published on: GOOD | Huffington Post | Common Dreams | Alternet.


Democracy Now! Interview with Clarence Lusane | Feb. 17, 2014

“Untold History: More Than a Quarter of U.S. Presidents Were Involved in Slavery, Human Trafficking”


PBS NewsHour “Why we shouldn’t forget that U.S. presidents owned slaves” Poem by Clint Smith III | Feb. 02, 2017

“When you sing that this country was founded on freedom, don’t forget the duet of shackles dragging against the ground my entire life.” This is how poet Clint Smith III begins his letter to past presidents who owned people. In honor of Black History Month, Smith offers his Brief But Spectacular take on the history of racial inequality in the United States.

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There are 12 comments by other visitors:

  • excellent!

    Response shared by Anonymous — January 10, 2015 @ 1:58 am

  • excellent!!!

    Response shared by uncle john — January 10, 2015 @ 1:59 am

  • I think it might be also worth noting that three Presidents who enslaved individuals are “honored” on America’s currency. In addition to the horror of slavery and human trafficking, two of those Presidents (Jefferson and Jackson–not Washington??) actively directed the removal of Native Americans and contributed in significant ways to their genocide.

    I doubt that there would be any success to a movement to remove those President’s from our currency and coins–the political problems would be daunting–but whenever we can we need to express our outrage.

    BTW, does anyone know of any organized effort to eliminate the word “slaves” from media writing and to replace that word with “enslaved people” or something similar. I’ve seen recent articles in the Washington Post for example where the writer uses the word “slave.”

    Even more troubling for me is when an article uses the words “owned by” in conjunction with the term “slave.” The word “own” connotes some legal “right” to the holding of someone against their will. While it may have been “legal” at the time to enslave someone, not all laws are of course “just” laws.

    I was pleased when I visited Montpelier recently and the docent consistently used the word “enslaved” in describing the many contributions that black individuals and families made to Madison’s life.

    Response shared by Robert Cluck — February 13, 2015 @ 10:06 am

  • interesting to know the final truth.. and we have a word for dolly madison!

    Response shared by rebecca — February 13, 2015 @ 11:34 am

  • Robert Cluck ! I like how you think

    Response shared by PM Doerr — February 13, 2015 @ 8:08 pm

  • This author left out that the Founders also freed their slaves in their wills. Except for Jefferson, who helped pass an anti-slavery law. It didn’t pass in his state, so he kept his slaves, which was highly hypocritical. But the other Founders did eventually free them.

    Response shared by mark — February 17, 2015 @ 2:18 am

  • And the truth continues to set us and all of our children free,

    Response shared by Olivia de la Garz — February 18, 2015 @ 6:13 pm

  • Now, if I had read this in high school, I would have found U.S. History absolutely fascinating.

    Response shared by Bob Lippold — May 1, 2015 @ 2:33 am

  • I don’t know about George Washington and “removal” of Native people, but he ordered the massacre of all the inhabitants of numerous Iroquois towns in what is now New York state, knowing there were only non-combatants (women, children, elders) in residence, all the warriors being at the “front.” It’s called the Clinton-Sullivan campaign.

    Response shared by Candia Elliott — July 30, 2015 @ 11:17 pm

  • You don’t really get any of this history in a traditional “American History” class in high school, but I got it when I took some GREAT Black History semesters in college in the 60’s. I was so appalled that none of this information was taught to me all through my “education” that I sopped it up, and over 50 years later, I’m still sopping. It makes us skeptics and activists and advocates for ALL HUMAN BEINGS….

    Response shared by Donna K. Ellis — February 12, 2016 @ 12:23 pm

  • Slavery is well known, and all these things are implied in that knowledge. And Washington ensured that any salves still owned by his estate would be freed at MArtha’s death, which is more than Oh-so-sensitive Tom Jefferson did.

    Response shared by bobkat — February 12, 2016 @ 3:03 pm

  • It does not matter to the corporate rich who wins the presidential election. It does not matter who is elected to Congress. The rich have the power. They throw money at their favorites the way a gambler puts cash on his favorite horse. Money has replaced the vote. The wealthy can crush anyone who does not play by their rules. And the political elites—slobbering over the spoils provided by their corporate masters for selling us out—understand the game. Barack and Michelle Obama, as did the Clintons, will acquire many millions of dollars once they leave the White House. And your elected representative in the House or Senate, if not a multimillionaire already, will be one as soon as he or she retires from government and is handed seats on corporate boards or positions in lobbying firms. We do not live in a democracy. We live in a political system that has legalized bribery, exclusively serves corporate power and is awash in propaganda and lies. It’s time to dump congress,boycott their firms and jail these crooked bankers.You need a revolution.No more talking,take action.

    Response shared by Tom — September 12, 2016 @ 6:16 am

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