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When presidents and slaves mingled at the White House

In the Picture: In the 2009 mural "Dolley Madison Directing the Rescue of George Washington's Portrait, August 24, 1814," by William Woodward, the slave Paul Jennings is depicted second from left.
In the Picture: In the 2009 mural "Dolley Madison Directing the Rescue of George Washington's Portrait, August 24, 1814," by William Woodward, the slave Paul Jennings is depicted second from left. (Montpelier Foundation)

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By Liza Mundy
Monday, February 15, 2010

Sometime around the middle of April 1804, a slave named John Freeman wrote a letter to the president of the United States. Freeman, technically owned by a Maryland doctor, William Baker, had been contracted to work for Thomas Jefferson, who engaged him to serve in the White House and accompany Jefferson on trips to Monticello.

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Now, Freeman was writing because he wanted the president to buy him outright.

"I am sorye to trubel you with a thing of this kind," he began, saying he felt obliged to do so because "I have been foolish anufe to in gage myself to Melindar."

The letter was an extraordinary feat of persuasion, heartfelt but also artful. Freeman, promising to serve Jefferson faithfully, went on to ask whether the president might even be "so good as to keep us [both]" -- that is, purchase a female slave named Melinda Colbert. On their trips to Virginia, Freeman had become enamored of Colbert, a niece of Sally Hemings who belonged to Jefferson's daughter Maria and her husband. Maria died that month, and the two slaves feared Melinda would be sold away.

The letter was one among numerous acts of resourcefulness and initiative that would result, years later, in John Freeman's being purchased and owned by not one U.S. president, but two. He would marry his beloved Melinda; gain his freedom; and, not least, purchase a piece of property on K Street in Northwest Washington, between 18th and 19th streets. There Freeman would establish a home for her and their children, taking his place among a unique, now largely forgotten community of free black residents with ties to U.S. presidents such as Jefferson, James Madison and George Washington.

In the ensuing years Freeman'sneighborhood became home to by a striking number of freed slaves who also had been owned by presidents. In the middle of the 19th century, the community included men and women whose start in life was about as disadvantaged as a human being's could be, but who, through drive and intellect and that classic Washington ingredient -- influential connections -- were able to improve their prospects. They would socialize together, work together and acquire property that in some cases would allow descendants to enjoy lives easier than theirs had been.

"Wouldn't you like to have had a piece of property on K Street?" says Beth Taylor, an independent scholar and former director of education at Montpelier, the historic home of James Madison. While researching Madison slaves, Taylor has become fascinated by this area, once home to what she calls Washington's "first families of color." Their life stories testify to the bonds between freed blacks in antebellum Washington, and remind us that a number of early American presidents did indeed own other human beings.

"As I do more research on the neighborhood, I wouldn't be at all surprised if I found descendants of slaves who worked for Tyler, Polk, Taylor, Jackson,"Taylor says. "These were all presidents, like Jefferson and Madison, who had slaves working for them in the White House."

In the early days of the union, she explains, presidents needed 10 or12 people to run the domestic side of the White House. The staff was often a mix of whites, free blacks and slaves, some from their own plantations, some purchased in the city and some, like Freeman, hired from other masters.

"One aspect of it that always strikes me is how these statesmen . . . had a real tendency to talk about the slavery problem, the slavery issue," Taylor reflects. "There was this lack of understanding on their part. . . . This is not the slavery problem. These are people enslaved."

Path to freedom

The neighborhood in which many of the former White House slaves settled is the downtown area -- now office buildings, retail stores and forgettable corporate architecture -- roughly bordered by K and M streets running east and west, and 15th and 21st running north and south. Back then, Taylor says, it would have been mostly residential, with modest frame and brick dwellings and stables. It was close to the city's action -- Lafayette Square, Pennsylvania Avenue, the White House -- but far enough away to be affordable.

Freeman was one of the first to settle there, but only after years of striving. In 1804, Jefferson did buy him for $400, agreeing to his Maryland master's promise that Freeman must receive his freedom in 1815.


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