Book Review

Two books on blacks and the White House

By Patricia Sullivan
Friday, February 18, 2011; 8:27 PM


By Clarence Lusane

City Lights. 575 pp. Paperback, $19.95


Presidents and African Americans in the White House

By Kenneth T. Walsh

Paradigm. 266 pp. $26.95

On Jan. 20, 2009, more than 1 million people crowded into Washington, D.C., to witness and celebrate the inauguration of Barack Obama. The television audience in the tens of millions created a collective experience that stretched across the country and around the world. Barely 40 years after legally mandated segregation was abolished, a black man became president of the United States.

Two new books explore the long, complex relationship between African Americans and the White House as a way to understand this momentous turning point. They start at the beginning - when slaves laid the foundation of the new presidential residence in Washington - and range across a broad, tumultuous stretch of history.

Clarence Lusane's boldly titled "The Black History of the White House" probes black interactions with the occupants of the White House through the experiences and accounts of slaves, servants, political strategists, entertainers, civil rights leaders and administrative officials. In the process, it recovers a critical and largely neglected dimension of America's past. Lusane, a professor of political science at American University, tells how racial ideas and practices at the highest levels of government continually undermined America's founding principles and how the endurance, resistance and struggles of black women and men sustained the promise of equality, creating the dynamic essential for racial change.

Drawing on the stories of a remarkable variety of individuals, the book opens with Oney Maria Judge's dramatic escape from the temporary presidential residence in Philadelphia, and George Washington's aggressive effort to capture her. While it is well known that eight presidents owned slaves while serving in office, this reality has powerful resonance here. Lusane describes the sights and sounds of the slave market that stretched along the Mall, in clear view of the Capitol and the White House, as late as the early 19th century.

During the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, African Americans gained political access to the White House for the first time. The relationship between Lincoln and Frederick Douglass offers insight into the evolution of Lincoln's leadership on the nation's most vexing issue. In a notable episode, Lusane describes how the 47-year-old Douglass "literally crashed through two police officers" attempting to bar him from the White House reception following Lincoln's second inaugural ceremony in 1865. He instructed the next layer of guards to tell the president that "Fred Douglass is at the door." Within minutes, the way was cleared. When Lincoln caught a glimpse of the abolitionist leader, he reportedly exclaimed: "Here comes my friend Douglass," and immediately engaged Douglass, anxious to know what he thought of the inaugural speech.

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