For many Americans, the White House stands as a symbol of liberty and justice. But its gleaming facade hides harsh realities, from the slaves who built the home to the presidents who lived there and shaped the country's racial history, often for the worse. In The Black History of the White House, Clarence Lusane traces the path of race relations in America by telling a very specific history — the stories of those African-Americans who built, worked at and visited the White House.
"Most of us grew up learning history, and we learned about George Washington and the cherry tree and all of that," Lusane tells NPR's Mary Louise Kelly, "but everything else was kind of a blur." But when you do the research, he says, you see 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."
George Washington owned 10 slaves as an 11-year-old, and more than 300 by the time he died. One woman, named Oney Judge, captured Lusane's interest. "Oney was one of the enslaved individuals who traveled with George Washington after he was elected president," Lusane explains.
The White House hadn't been built yet, so during the 10 years of its construction, Washington spent time in New York, then moved to Philadelphia. In Philadelphia, "he had a couple of problems." Philadelphia had a law called the Gradual Abolition Act, passed in 1780. It stated that any slave brought into the state was eligible to apply for their freedom if they were there for longer than six months. Washington rotated his slaves to get around the law.
Judge worked for Martha Washington, who planned to give her away to a relative as a wedding gift. That inspired Judge to act — she knew the Washingtons planned to free their slaves upon their deaths, but that would be unlikely under a new master.
"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," says Lusane. She'd made contact with the local black community, and they helped her escape.
Judge was later discovered in New Hampshire, and President Washington decided to go after her. "Now, think about this," says Lusane. "You've escaped from the most powerful individual in the country, who can send virtually anybody after you. That's the kind of courage that she had."
Washington sent someone to sit down with her and ask her to come back with the promise that she'd eventually be free. Her response, says Lusane, was, "Well, I'm already free." Washington then sent his nephew to kidnap her, but she had been warned and never went back into slavery.
"Her story is so compelling," says Lusane, because she started as powerless as could be — as a slave. But because her desire for freedom was so strong, "she was willing to go up against the most powerful person in the country."