Correction: The following commentary states incorrectly that U.S. Army doctors Alexander Augusta and Anderson Abbott were among a small group of black visitors at the New Year’s reception at the White House in 1864. Augusta and Abbott were not among that group; they attended a different White House reception, on Feb. 23, 1864.
Kate Masur is an associate professor of history at Northwestern University and a fellow at Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.
In 1864 a small cadre of African American men and women decided to break the color line at one of Washington’s signal social events, the New Year’s reception at the White House. Among them were two U.S. Army doctors dressed in full uniform.
One of the doctors, Anderson Abbott, later recalled that President Abraham Lincoln received them politely. When they passed into the East Room, however, the assembled crowd stared in shocked surprise. At first Abbott felt like crawling “into a hole.”
“As we had decided to break the record, we held our ground,” he wrote. The two men kept themselves busy for about half an hour, looking at the art on the walls and listening to the Marine Band, all the while under the gaze of the incredulous white guests.
William Stoddard, one of Lincoln’s secretaries, said he would “never forget” the moment. The men’s presence, he wrote, was “a practical assertion of negro citizenship, for which few were prepared.”
Since August, thousands of Americans have lain on sidewalks and marched in streets, demanding reform of a criminal justice system that seems to place little value on the lives and well being of people of color. Many white Americans — like the partygoers in Lincoln’s White House — have been taken by surprise. Some are sympathetic; some are angry; some refuse to consider that the protesters’ claims could be true.
African Americans’ efforts to attend public receptions in Lincoln’s White House may seem a world away from the life-or-death issues raised by today’s protesters. Yet a glimpse into that world tells something about the duration of the struggle and how difficult it has often been, even for well-meaning white Americans, to recognize the full humanity and citizenship of black Americans.
The public receptions that Abraham and Mary Lincoln hosted in the White House are famous for their democratic sensibility. Wealthy socialites mingled with clerks and laborers wearing work clothes, and all lined up together for a chance to greet the president and first lady and mingle in the East Room. Describing the heterogeneity of a winter 1865 gathering, one reporter glowed: “The crowd here symbolizes the nation.”
He said more than he probably intended, for black Americans were not welcome at such occasions — not considered fully vested members of the American public.
Every year the Lincolns threw open the doors of the White House for a New Year’s reception to which the public was invited. When a few African Americans — including Abbott and fellow physician Alexander Augusta — asserted their citizenship by attending in 1864, people inside the White House were shocked, but decorum prevailed.
The next year, however, things unfolded quite differently. By New Year’s 1865, it appeared that the abolition of slavery and the defeat of the Confederacy were at hand. For African American activists and their white allies, however, it was not enough simply to outlaw slavery. They envisioned a nation in which racism, too, would be eradicated. They wanted an end to discrimination in voting rights and law enforcement. And African Americans wanted to be treated with the same respect and dignity accorded to whites.
The Lincolns’ 1865 New Year’s reception was their largest yet — and probably the largest ever. Lincoln had just been elected to a second term, his once-controversial military decisions finally bearing fruit. An immense crowd gathered in front of the portico, waiting while the president visited with his Cabinet, members of the diplomatic corps and other dignitaries.
This time, hundreds of African Americans stood among the throngs, hoping they, too, would have a chance to enjoy the reception and to show, by attending, that they were part of the American people.
A reporter for the New York Independent, an abolitionist weekly, provided an account that has been repeated by historians down to the present. The docile black partygoers waited “earnestly” until the public reception was over, the newsman explained. Then they “summoned up the courage, and began timidly to approach” the White House door. Lincoln, exhausted but willing, greeted them. The visitors “laughed and wept, and wept and laughed” — as if they were characters out of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
Accounts in other papers are quite different, however. The Washington Intelligencer reported that African Americans sought entry alongside whites, jostling and elbowing in the crowd. A Democratic correspondent from St. Louis said whites became angry when black visitors made clear that “they intended to seek ingress with the crowd by pressing forward shoulder to shoulder with the whites” when the doors opened. White guests were said to have shouted “Put ’em out” and “Go to the kitchen!” as they tried to block African Americans from entering.
A few black guests filtered into the White House before security guards took charge and forced them out. Amid the chaos, Mrs. Lincoln decided it was “consistent with her dignity to retire” and left for her private quarters.
It is intriguing that the description given by the Independent became the go-to source for historians, for the reports that tell a different story are more numerous and more complete. They also tell a story that is far less reassuring — a story of black Americans who demanded recognition as the social equals of white Americans; of white people reacting with menacing hostility; of security guards with “crossed bayonets” instructed to keep black Americans at bay; and of a beloved president unwilling to stand up for equality.
Much has changed in 150 years. An African American family lives in the White House; guests of all complexions attend their receptions and parties. Yet it remains difficult to talk about race — or more precisely, about the fact that we continue to live in the aftermath of centuries of race-based bondage. Slavery’s legacies saturate our culture, our institutions and our consciousness. Too many white people are still angered by the idea that black people would insist on being treated as full-fledged American citizens. Too many well-meaning people would still rather invoke stock characters and cliches than confront the legitimacy of black demands for basic fairness and respect.
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