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Author Reveals White House's Black History

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Clarence Lusane, author of "The Black History of the White House", is the program director for Comparative and Regional Studies at American University.
Rebecca Sheir
Clarence Lusane, author of "The Black History of the White House", is the program director for Comparative and Regional Studies at American University.

The stately, pillared mansion at1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW is actually the third home that has served U.S. presidents throughout the county’s history. But for about a hundred years after it was built, "people were calling it 'the president's mansion,' and 'the executive house'," according to Dr. Clarence Lusane, an associate professor at American University and author of The Black History of the White House.

There were sort of "references" to it as The White House, he says, "but none of that was official."

So where did the official name come from? To find out, Lusane moves back to the nation’s early days. "It was generally known that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had slaves. But twelve U.S. presidents had owned slaves," he says. (That, mind you, is more than a quarter.)

Eight of those presidents had had slaves either in the White House or in the President’s House over that period, according to Lusane. And while the Civil War did end the institution of slavery, "because of the institution of legal segregation, what we begin to witness is that process of segregation manifesting itself also in the White House."

This is where the story takes off. It's September 1901 and President William McKinley dies. Theodore Roosevelt becomes president and that October, he hears that Booker T. Washington -- "the top black leader of the time," Lusane notes -- is coming to D.C. for a visit.

"So Roosevelt invites him for a meeting, and dinner," Lusane says. (Washington gladly accepts.) "...And this becomes a gigantic scandal. The South goes absolutely ballistic that you have a black person sitting down eating dinner, particularly when it's discovered that Roosevelt's daughter and wife were there," Lusane continues.

Newspaper editorials and politicians in the South start shouting for Roosevelt's resignation, and Roosevelt is shocked, according to Lusane's book.

"Because when he'd been governor of New York, he had routinely invited African Americans and other people to have dinner at the governor's mansion. So it didn't seem all that unusual or strange," says Lusane.

But for many -- in the South, anyway -- it was. So, as the story goes, on October 17th, 1901, "Roosevelt issues the order to officially name the place 'The White House,'" says Lusane. "And the upturn of that is basically nobody black gets invited to eat at the White House 'til like the late 1920s."

Granted, in a strictly paint-swatch kind of way, the White House is, quite obviously, white.

"This is true. Part of the reason it was called that is because of the way it looks," notes Lusane. "But for many in the South in particular, it also had a racial meaning to it as well."

This is why, Lusane says, there have been movements over the years to change the building’s name. When Barack Obama was running for office, "there was chatter about 'the name should be changed because now coming in we have a different president,' like that," Lusane says. "And interestingly, in a number of references, Michelle Obama has referred to it as 'The People’s House,' which had been one of the popular names over time."

The way Clarence Lusane sees it, the White House belongs to so many "people", including the slaves who built it, the servants who've made it run, the jazz musicians who've performed under its roof, and the activists who have visited in the name of racial equality. "I think it's just a part of the history of the White House that we were never told," he says. "It's part of the history of the country that we were never told about."

Because this isn't just black history, he adds. This is American history.

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