Book review by Patricia Sullivan

Two books on blacks and the White House

Sunday, February 20, 2011

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.

A month later Lincoln was dead, and it would be Andrew Johnson, the great accommodator of the defeated South, who set the tone of presidential racial policies for decades to come, with the brief exception of Ulysses S. Grant. The storm of southern protest that met Booker T. Washington's dinner at the White House with Theodore Roosevelt in 1901, and Roosevelt's frantic pursuit of "damage-control," showed how tightly the line between the races was drawn.

But even during the most repressive decades of Jim Crow, Lusane reveals how black Americans asserted their citizenship in relationship to the office of the presidency. In 1898, √Ida B. Wells led a delegation to the White House to protest the mob murder of the black postmaster of Lake City, S.C., demanding a federal investigation. President McKinley assured them he would look into it; nothing was done. Three years later, a black man, James √Benjamin Parker, tackled McKinley's assassin, nearly saving the president's life and risking his own. Parker, who worked as a waiter, explained, "I do say that the life of the head of this country is worth more than an ordinary citizen and I should have caught the bullets in my body rather than the President should get them."

Lusane's treatment of the era from Franklin Roosevelt's administration through the Kennedy years is cursory. He describes it as a time when the White House became more open to black citizens and to racial concerns but suggests that presidential leadership, with the exception of Harry Truman's, continued to lag. Beyond a few firsts - E. Frederic Morrow's appointment as an executive assistant to President Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy's recruitment of Abraham Bolden as the first black Secret Service officer assigned to the White House, the most notable expansion of the black presence at the White House appears to be on dinner lists and as featured artists for a variety of state occasions.

Yet from the 1930s to the 1960s, the White House was the primary focus of intensified black political engagement at the highest level of government. A host of strategists leveraged the growing power of northern black voters and the liberalizing force of New Deal initiatives to gain fuller access to the White House, press for black inclusion in the government, open up the Democratic Party and lay the groundwork for the civil rights legislation of the mid-'60s. A few prominent examples: Mary McLeod Bethune organized the power of black officials within the Roosevelt administration and became a major conduit to black voters; the NAACP's Walter White, a fixture in Washington, compelled Truman to establish his famous commission on civil rights; and Louis Martin, a key adviser to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, was largely responsible for the appointment of an unprecedented number of African Americans to positions in the federal government, mentoring a generation of black political leaders and party operatives. These and other men and women - in tandem with civil rights protests on the ground - were critical to the process that made the election of Barack Obama possible.

The book serves up a compelling account of the retreat from civil rights - starting with the "southern strategy" of Richard Nixon and peaking with what Lusane calls Ronald Reagan's "anti-black agenda." There were, as the author notes, sharp differences in the racial attitudes and approaches of Republican and Democratic presidents in the closing decades of the 20th century. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, both white Southerners, appointed more African Americans to federal office than any president before them. During his first term, Clinton appointed five black cabinet members. Yet Carter and Clinton did little to challenge the direction set by Republicans. Lusane makes particular note of Clinton's crime and welfare policies. In an interesting twist, Lusane stretches beyond White House insiders to provide fascinating profiles of a dozen black men and women who have pursued presidential aspirations since the 1960s, starting with Dizzy Gillespie.

In "Family of Freedom," veteran White House correspondent Kenneth T. Walsh treads a narrow path. Organized chronologically around a succession of presidential administrations, his book provides a spare, uneven catalogue of the racial policies and attitudes of individual presidents, paired with a description of the relationship between first families and African Americans, particularly the black men and women who managed daily life in the White House.

Walsh draws on the telling memoirs and recollections of the domestic staff as a window onto the personal behavior of presidents and first ladies. Comments by former presidents on their relationships with African Americans in the White House are scarce but revealing. At the end of his term, Lyndon Johnson publicly referred to Preston Bruce, who served five presidents, as "one of the dearest friends I have" and the one person, outside of his immediate family, who "has kept me going." George W. Bush told Walsh that he and Laura Bush felt "very close" to the White House residence staff. "They are family to us," he wrote, "and always will be." But Walsh provides little insight on how the policies of individual presidents and the actions of black people in the public arena informed the "arc of racial history" that, according to the author, culminated with the election of Barack Obama.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2011 The Washington Post Company