Blacks moved from slaves at the White House to honored guests — President Abraham Lincoln met with abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth in the White House — to indispensable parts of White House life reflected in William Slade’s appointment by President Andrew Johnson as the very first White House steward, the person charged with running the domestic side of the White House.
Not only did blacks work in the White House, they also started working at the White House. E. Frederick Morrow was the first African American to be officially appointed a White House aide by Eisenhower in 1955; John F. Kennedy named Andrew Hatcher associate press secretary in 1960.
The progress was hardly smooth.
In 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt formally invited Booker T. Washington to the White House for dinner. But as Republican presidential candidate John McCain noted in his concession speech, Southern newspapers were outraged and condemned Roosevelt publicly after they learned of the invitation from an Associated Press dispatch. Roosevelt never invited another African American to a White House dinner again.
All the while, African American domestic workers like John Pye kept the White House working smoothly behind the scenes.
“These are the folks who not only keep the leadership comfortable, but they make the White House into a home for those occupants, and they make government service more than tolerable for high-level staffers who are working long hours,” said Gail Lowe, senior historian at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum. “Without their eyewitness to history, we probably would not have as full a story as we have of the inner workings of the White House.”
The Smithsonian holds memorabilia belonging to Pye, who worked as valet, messenger, driver, cook and butler in the White House during President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration.
Sometimes the workers also made history, Lowe said.
“When the first war bonds were issued in April 1942, President Roosevelt did a little presale as a publicity move, and the first person to whom he sold a war bond was John Pye,” said Lowe. “It cost $18.75. And as President Roosevelt made his pitch for the war bonds — ‘This is to support our war effort. Our young men are serving overseas. They’re giving their lives, we can lend our money.’ And almost before the words were out of his mouth, John Pye had stepped forward to purchase the bond.”
Despite their contributions, blacks experienced racism even inside the White House.
Alonzo Fields, a former maître d’ who worked in the White House for 31 years, said they had segregated dining rooms for the workers at one point.
“I’m good enough to handle the president’s food — to handle the president’s food and do everything, but I cannot eat with the help,” Fields, who died in 1994, told the Smithsonian Institution Center for Folklife Programs & Cultural Studies for its “Workers in the White House” project.
Pye faced at least one incident with Richard M. Nixon, then vice president, who came to him and asked about some leftover White House food.
“Nixon said: ‘Boy, what are y’all going to do with the rest of the food,’” Lowe said. “Mr. Pye did not like being called ‘boy’ and he didn’t like to be questioned about how the kitchen would deal with leftovers.”
Pye told him that the food went to charity, but it turned out Nixon wanted to eat the leftovers.
“Pye made sure they went to charitable organizations that day,” Lowe said.
Associated Press Writer Jesse J. Holland is the author of the book, “Black Men Built The Capitol: Discovering African American History In and Around Washington, D.C.”