African-Americans & the White House

The highly anticipated inauguration of America’s first black president, Mr. Barack Obama, will no doubt be accompanied by a tremendous amount of media coverage from a whole host of perspectives.      

This very good article, from MSNBC, traces the long historical association of African-Americans and the White House, recalling that “slaves not only helped build the White House, but also for decades men and women in bondage served America’s presidents and first families as butlers, cooks and maids.”

I especially liked the fact that the MSNBC article linked to an electronic edition of  A Colored Man’s Reminisences, written by Paul Jennings, a slave of our fourth president, James Madison, and available through Documenting the American South, a project sponsored by the Library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  UNC-CH is one of America’s most important repositories of rare and valuable imprints — books, pamphlets, broadsides, etc.  — associated with the American South.  Through this project, literally 100s of titles from the University’s North Carolina Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Rare Book Collection and Davis Library, all associated with various themes of Southern history, are now available for free on the web.  If you’re not familiar with Documenting the American South, check it out sometime.

The MSNBC article also mentions that an African-American baby was born in the White House in 1806, daughter of two slaves of then president Thomas Jefferson. 

This reminded me of the Sally Hemings controversy — the theory, now born out by DNA evidence, that Thomas Jefferson or a close relative fathered children by Jefferson’s slave Sally Hemings.  The library has several books on this subject, as well Thomas Jefferson’s slaves in general, which would no doubt shed light upon the domestic relations of slaves and our presidents.  These include:  The Hemingses of Monticello:  An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed; The Jefferson-Hemings Myth:  An American Travesty, presented by the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society and edited by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.; Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings:  An American Controversy by Annette Gordon-Reed; The Slave Families of Thomas Jefferson:  A Pictorial Study Book with an Interpretation of His Farm Book in Genealogy Charts, in 2 vols., written and compiled by B. Bernetiae Reed. 

The author of the last mentioned work is a native of Greensboro.  It is a sumptuously illustrated and painstaking study of over 600 of Jefferson’s slaves.

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