Sunday, November 9, 2008

Race and the History of the White House

The New York Times has a brilliant piece tracing the history of African Americans and the house where presidents work and play. It is a stark reminder of America's troubled history of race. The fact that a black president will be sworn-in January 20 is even more amazing given the history of the White House--a place where no African American stayed overnight as a guest until Sammy Davis Jr. and his wife did so during the Richard Nixon presidency.

As the article points out: "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." When President Teddy Roosevelt dined with Booker T. Washington in the White House in 1901, it was roundly criticized throughout the country, one newspaper calling it a "damnable outrage." "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."

So when Barack Obama takes the oath of office on January 20, and moves into the White House thereafter, I hope Americans of all races appreciate the significance of the moment. It has nothing to with party or ideology--it would mean the same thing if an African American Republican would be taking the oath. It has everything to do with the history of America and this country's struggle with the issue of race from the beginning of the republic.


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