Celebrating African American History at the White House

Watch President Obama speak at a White House reception for the Museum of African American History & Culture at 4:20 pm ET.


Tomorrow, President Obama will welcome our newest addition to the National Mall: the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, a museum dedicated to telling a fuller story of America through the history of African Americans.

As we celebrate the central role that African Americans have played in the life and history of our country, we also celebrate the African Americans whose labor and service helped shape one of the most powerful pillars of our democracy – the People’s House.

Ahead of the dedication ceremony, President Obama will deliver remarks at a White House reception for the museum’s opening. Here’s a look at some of what guests who are attending the reception will see as they walk through the residence and experience the African American history of the White House.

The Slaves and Servants Who Built and Served the White House

The White House was built by slaves. Some of the slaves’ names were Peter, Tom, Ben, and Harry, some were skilled carpenters, and two of them were enslaved to the chief architect of the White House, James Hoban.

The Diplomatic Reception Room was known as the “Servant’s Hall,” where African American slaves and servants lived. One of the most well-known slaves who worked under President James Madison was Paul Jennings, who wrote an early White House memoir and was involved in an 1848 plan to undertake a large-scale escape of slaves from Washington, D.C. aboard the schooner Pearl.

Dolly Johnson, Paul Jennings, Elizabeth Keckley

The White House kitchen and several servant rooms were located on the ground floor of the Executive Mansion in the 19th century. Dolly Johnson, President Benjamin Harrison's cook, can be seen in this photograph in the family kitchen. Johnson came to the White House in 1889, with the Benjamin Harrison family and stayed through four presidential administrations. Often damp and moldy, the ground floor was a difficult place for the White House staff to work and live. (1584) (Library of Congress)

Front Seat to History

For years, the White House has recognized filmmakers and actors who have influenced American history by showcasing notable films in the Family Theater, hosting screenings at the White House, honoring recipients of the Presidential Medals of Freedom and Arts, and organizing other events featuring aspiring youth talent. President Obama has continued that tradition by honoring creative works that have brought about conversations on race and inclusion in America. From screening of Red Tails for retired Tuskegee Airmen, to honoring Sidney Poitier, to hosting panel discussions on shows that address slavery such as Roots and Underground, the White House has highlighted the importance of recognizing America’s past, no matter how dark, and how it has helped to shape our future.

Red Tails

Sidney Poitier

President Barack Obama hugs Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient actor Sidney Poitier during the award ceremony in the East Room of the White House, on Aug. 12, 2009.

 

Keeping the Drum Beat Going

Throughout history, the White House has hosted performances from African American artists who, through music, have expressed the full range of the American experience.

Before there was Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles, Thomas Greene Bethune, also known as “Blind Tom,” was a musical prodigy and the first African American artist to have performed at the White House at the young age of 10 for President James Buchanan. Born a slave in 1849, Tom was known to have played the piano like Beethoven and Mozart and could repeat long sheet music after only hearing it once.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers — a choir from the Fisk School in Nashville, Tennessee that first opened its doors during the Civil War for former slaves — became the first African American choir to perform at the White House in 1882. One of their songs, “Safe in the Arms of Jesus,” was said to have moved President Chester A. Arthur to tears. The group was awarded the 2008 National Medal of Arts during the Administration of President George W. Bush.

Blind Tom

Blind Tom
Fisk Jubilee Singers

The Fisk Jubilee Singers, a choir from the Fisk School in Nashville, Tennessee that first opened its doors during the Civil War for former slaves, became the first African American choir to perform at the White House in 1882. They performed spiritual songs that were known to possess deep “emotional beauty.” One of their songs, “Safe in the Arms of Jesus,” was said to have moved President Arthur to tears. The group was awarded the 2008 National Medal of Arts during the Administration of President George W. Bush. (Library of Congress)
Grace Bumbry

President John F. Kennedy talks with mezzo-soprano opera singer Grace Bumbry in the East Room following Ms. Bumbry's performance at a dinner in honor of Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, Speaker of the House of Representatives John W. McCormack, and Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren. (1962) (John F. Kennedy Library)
B.B. King

This photograph shows iconic American blues singer, guitarist, and songwriter B.B. King performing in the East Room for a celebration of Black Music Month on June 26, 2006. His performance focused on music of the Gulf Coast. (George W. Bush Presidential Library/National Archives)
Duke Ellington

This photograph by the National Park Service's Abbie Rowe is of President Richard M. Nixon and Duke Ellington and was taken on April 29, 1969 during a program honoring Ellington's seventieth birthday. Ellington (1899-1974) was a prolific musician, composer and band leader who wrote numerous songs that became classics of American jazz. At this celebration, Ellington was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his contributions to American music. (National Archives)
Dizzy Gillespie

This photograph of President Jimmy Carter on stage at a White House jazz concert was taken on June 18, 1978. Carter appears in the photograph with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie (center) and percussionist Max Roach (right), performing Gillespie's tune “Salt Peanuts.” (White House Historical Association)
Ella Fitzgerald

President Gerald R. Ford Congratulating Jazz Singer Ella Fitzgerald Following Her Performance at a White House Concert for Members of the Diplomatic Corps to Celebrate the American Revolution Bicentennial, 7/20/1976.
Stevie Wonder

This photograph by an unknown photographer is of American singer, musician, and Motown icon Stevie Wonder performing at the White House. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2014. (William J. Clinton Presidential Library)

 

Protect and Serve

African Americans have been an integral part of protecting our safety and that of the President of the United States. Although many who served were not recognized at the time and faced hurdles because of the color of their skin, that didn’t stop them from honorably fulfilling their duties for this nation. From the veterans who risked their lives for comrades, to the first African American members of the Armed Forces who stood alone amongst a regiment of all white soldiers, to the slaves who fought for the promise of equality, to the Secret Service members whose sacrifice often went unrecognized, these heroes believed in a brighter future even when the odds were stacked against them.

A list of African American Medal of Honor recipients is on display in the new Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture.

Truman

Edward Williams (right) of St. Louis, Missouri, exchanges a handshake with his Commander-in-Chief, President Harry S. Truman (left), at a casual meeting during the President's morning walk. Williams had been in the Air Force nine years at the time of this photograph. October 12, 1950.

Historic Meetings

An invitation to the White House has held both symbolic power and a platform to voice the American experience.

LBJ and MLK

This photograph shows President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson meeting with members of the civil rights movement and leaders of the March on Washington in the Oval Office. (1963) (John F. Kennedy Library/National Archives)
Rosa Parks

William J. Clinton presents Rosa Parks the Medal of Freedom in the Oval Office (She was awarded in a special ceremony since she was unable to attend the larger ceremony held 9/9/96 due to weather issues with her flight to DC). September 14, 1996.
Eisenhower and MLK

Dwight D. Eisenhower receives a group of prominent civil rights leaders. Left to Right: Lester Granger, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., E. Frederic Morrow, DDE, A. Philip Randolph, William Rogers, Rocco Siciliano, and Roy Wilkins. June 23, 1958.
Wilma Rudolph

This photograph taken by the Department of State shows President John F. Kennedy meeting with American athlete Wilma Rudolph in the Oval Office. Rudolph was a triple Olympic gold medalist in track and field during the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. She was considered the fastest woman in the world, and at the time of this photograph, was also a student at Tennessee State College in Nashville.

Presidential Appointments

The quiet sacrifices White House staff members have made in service of our country often reached beyond the long hours and high demands of their jobs. In face of the challenges they faced, their perseverance to show up every day to work and see their contribution as part of a vision larger than themselves paved the way for change.

Clifford Alexander

President Carter greeting Secretary of the Army, Clifford Alexander, July 19, 1980. (Ronald Regan Presidential Library)
E. Frederic Morrow

E. Frederic Morrow
Andrew Hatcher

Associate Press Secretary Andrew Hatcher under President John F. Kennedy (1961) (John F. Kennedy Library)

“The Butler”

African American butlers and housekeepers have served the White House for decades. Their dedication and resilience behind the scenes inevitably empowered others, as portrayed in Lee Daniels’ film adaptation of the experience of African American butlers in the White House.

BLOCK QUOTE: “The most memorable moment I had at the White House is seeing my mother walk up North Portico, all alone, to visit me and George and Barbara Bush in their personal quarters…She was so nervous, but enjoyed herself. I said to myself well, my mother is just as important as all those kings and queens. I’m going to have my queen do it.” – Former White House Butler George Hannie

Eugene Allen

First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy attends a luncheon for senators’ wives in the State Dining Room of the White House, Washington, D.C. Pictured here: White House butlers, Johnny Johnson, John W. Ficklin, and Eugene Allen. (1962) (John F. Kennedy Library)
Jerry Smith

Jerry Smith, North Portico, c. 1889 – Jerry Smith started working at the White House during the the Ulysses S. Grant administration in the late 1860s, and served as butler, cook, doorman, and footman until his retirement some 35 years later. He was often seen with his signature feather duster. Shortly before dying at age 69 in 1904, Smith was visited at his home by President Theodore Roosevelt. (Library of Congress)
Maitre D’ John Ficklin

Matire D' John Ficklin