History was made this week with the election of Barack Obama as the next President. But what does it really mean in historic terms? We can all answer that with a quick recall of our nation’s past. But take a few past examples from the new home to the Obama family, and it all becomes even more clear.
In a pre-election conference call, Mr. Obama referred to the powerful symbolism of his daughters playing on the South Lawn of the White House, a building built with slave labor. And John McCain, in his concession speech Tuesday night, alluded to a private dinner that Theodore Roosevelt had with Booker T. Washington in 1901 that set off a poisonous controversy.
Responding to that dinner at the time, The Memphis Scimitar called it “the most damnable outrage which has ever been perpetrated by any citizen of the United States.” A former Democratic president, Grover Cleveland, wrote a letter to the House of Representatives, read on the floor in the election year of 1904, declaring that he had never done such a thing as invite a black man to dinner in that house.
John Stauffer, author of “Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln,” observed, “The racial history of the White House is a wonderful symbol of the racial history of the nation as a whole.”
The house itself was built by crews of black laborers — both slave and free. In 1801, a year after it opened, Thomas Jefferson brought nearly a dozen slaves from Monticello, and slaves would constitute much of the house’s staff until the death in 1850 of Zachary Taylor, the last slaveholder to be president.
Many lived in the servants’ quarters on the first floor, but some slept on the first family’s second floor — an intimacy that was a frequent source of tensions with non-slave servants.
The most prominent black caller to the White House in its first century was Frederick Douglass. He came three times while Lincoln was president, and his last visit was perhaps his most important. The White House had been thrown open to the public to celebrate the president’s second inaugural, but the guards turned Douglass away — apparently on standing orders that blacks were not to be allowed in. Douglass sent in his card, and Lincoln ordered him admitted.
The president asked Douglass how he had liked the speech, adding, “There is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours.”
“Mr. Lincoln,” Mr. Douglass answered, “that was a sacred effort.”
In those years, a black dresssmaker and former slave, Elizabeth Keckly, was Mary Todd Lincoln’s confidante. And in the next three decades, black singers, including the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Marie Selika Williams and Sissieretta Jones, entertained at the White House. But none of the singers were invited to stay for meals, a taboo that would last well into the next century.
Lou Hoover, the wife of Herbert Hoover, found that to be a problem in 1929, after Oscar De Priest became the first African-American elected to Congress since Reconstruction. She was admonished not to invite Mr. DePriest’s wife to her traditional tea for Congressional wives, so instead she arranged a separate tea party for Mrs. DePriest. But the event still drew a resolution of criticism from the Texas Legislature.
Eleanor Roosevelt, who was Theodore’s niece as well as Franklin’s wife, famously included African-Americans among her many guests at the White House, and she, too, was criticized — including when she invited Marian Anderson to follow her concert at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 by singing at the White House before the king and queen of England.
The postwar wave of independence that swept the world changed Washington’s diplomatic scene. Black diplomats became regular guests at state dinners, and African heads of state were invited to sleep overnight. Still, most presidents reserved the White House guest rooms almost exclusively for family and close friends.
But African-Americans were gaining in political power — in Congress, in the cabinet, as aides — and starting in the 1970s became familiar figures in and near the Oval Office.
The first African-American guests invited to sleep in the White House are believed to have been Sammy Davis Jr. and his wife, Altovise, in 1973, by Richard Nixon. Mr. Davis was struck by the history. He later joked that he turned down the chance to sleep in the Lincoln bedroom in favor of the Queen’s room. “I thought to myself, now I don’t want [Lincoln] coming in here talking about, ‘I freed them, but I sure didn’t want them to sleep in my bed.’ ” (The singer Pearl Bailey, a friend of Betty Ford, also stayed overnight, after Nixon’s resignation.)
Still, there remains the enduring poignance of the not-so-distant past that was alluded to on election night — best expressed, perhaps, by an incident during Lyndon Johnson’s administration.
Bess Abell, who was Johnson’s White House social secretary, vividly remembers a state dinner at which Sarah Vaughan sang but, after dinner, disappeared.
“I found her in this office, which had been turned over to her as a dressing room, and she was sobbing,” Mrs. Abell said in an interview. “And I said, ‘Mrs. Vaughan, what’s wrong? What can I do?’ And she said, ‘There’s nothing wrong. This is the most wonderful day of my life. When I first came to Washington, I couldn’t get a hotel room, and tonight, I danced with the president.’ ”