African-Americans And The White House (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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African-Americans and the White House

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

13:08:12
But first we start with the country's most famous house. So can you talk about where we are right now? Right here in Washington, D.C.

MR. CLARENCE LUSANE

13:08:19
We're at Lafayette Square and we're standing in front of the White House.

SHEIR

13:08:24
At this point, this fellow is a veritable expert on the White House and a very particular aspect of its history. His name is Clarence Lusane.

LUSANE

13:08:33
Dr. Clarence Lusane from American University. I'm an associate professor in the School of International Service and I direct the Comparative and Regional Studies Program as well as our program for International Race Relations.

SHEIR

13:08:47
So you really don't have much going on?

LUSANE

13:08:48
No, not a lot, no.

SHEIR

13:08:49
To further prove the obvious lack of stuff on Lusane's plate, he also recently published a book, "The Black History of the White House."

LUSANE

13:08:58
It looks at the experience of people of African descent through the prism of the White House as an icon representing the United States, but specifically the presidency.

SHEIR

13:09:10
Because Lusane says, the African-American experience is inextricably tied to the White House from its domestic servants...

LUSANE

13:09:17
Duke Ellington's father worked at the White House as a butler and part-time caterer.

SHEIR

13:09:22
...to its visiting artists and musicians...

LUSANE

13:09:24
Jazz had first been performed at the White House under the Kennedys.

SHEIR

13:09:28
...to its various officials and agents and to, of course, its current primary and presidential resident. Well, that's the thing, President Obama, clearly, he's the first black president we've had, but he's not the first person of African descent to work in this building right here?

LUSANE

13:09:43
Right.

SHEIR

13:09:43
And speaking of this building, the stately white mansion across from Lafayette Square is not actually the first presidential home.

LUSANE

13:09:51
It's actually the third residence of U.S. presidents.

SHEIR

13:09:56
But when it was built on Pennsylvania Avenue in the late 1700s, Lusane says, people of African descent were instrumental in making it happen.

LUSANE

13:10:04
The carpenters in the building, the laying of the bricks, the digging of the ground, much of this was done by slave labor.

SHEIR

13:10:12
And that Lusane says is where the black history of the White House begins. Because as Lusane was researching his book, he came across a fact he found eye-opening, the number of U.S. presidents who owned slaves.

LUSANE

13:10:26
It was generally known George Washington, Thomas Jefferson had slaves, but 12 U.S. presidents, more than a quarter of all U.S. presidents had owned slaves and eight of those presidents had had slaves either in the White House or in the President's House over that period.

SHEIR

13:10:42
Which he says helps explain why slavery lasted so long in this country.

LUSANE

13:10:47
Because at the very top of the government, you had individuals who were compromised on the issue.

SHEIR

13:10:53
And yes, the Civil War ended the institution of slavery.

LUSANE

13:10:57
But because of the institution of legal segregation, what we begin to witness is that process of segregation manifesting itself also in the White House.

SHEIR

13:11:06
So much so, he says it actually explains how the White House got its official name.

LUSANE

13:11:13
There's a whole story behind that. People were calling it the President's Mansion, the Executive House. There were sort of references to it as the White House, but none of that was official.

SHEIR

13:11:23
Until 1901 that is. Lusane says he uncovered the story in his research.

LUSANE

13:11:29
And it took a great deal of effort to kind of track that down, working with the White House Historical Association and some others.

SHEIR

13:11:37
So here's the deal. In September 1901, President William McKinley dies making Theodore Roosevelt the 26th president of the United States. Then in October, Roosevelt receives word that Booker T. Washington...

LUSANE

13:11:51
The black leader of the time.

SHEIR

13:11:53
...is coming to D.C. for a visit.

LUSANE

13:11:55
So Roosevelt invites him to a meeting and dinner.

SHEIR

13:11:58
An invitation that Booker T. Washington gladly accepts. So he comes over...

LUSANE

13:12:03
And this becomes a gigantic scandal. The South goes absolutely ballistic that you have a black person sitting down eating dinner, and particularly when it's discovered that Roosevelt's daughter and wife were there.

SHEIR

13:12:16
Lusane says newspaper editorials and politicians in the South start shouting for Roosevelt's resignation and Roosevelt, well, he's pretty much shocked.

LUSANE

13:12:26
Because when he had 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.

SHEIR

13:12:38
But for many in the South anyway it was. So as the story goes on, October 17, 1901.

LUSANE

13:12:45
Roosevelt issues the order to officially name the place the White House and the upturn of that is basically nobody black is invited to eat at the White House 'til like the late 1920s.

SHEIR

13:12:57
Now, granted so people might think, well, it's a white house, in a strictly paint-swatch kind of way. It's painted a nice white shade. The White House is actually white.

LUSANE

13:13:09
This is true. Part of the reason it was called that is because of the way it looks. But for many in the South, in particular, it also had a racial meaning to it as well.

SHEIR

13:13:20
Which is why, Lusane says, you can find an entire history of people trying to change the building's name.

LUSANE

13:13:27
As part of racial equity...

SHEIR

13:13:30
In fact, when Barack Obama was running for office...

LUSANE

13:13:33
There was chatter about the name should be changed because now coming in, we have a different president like that. 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.

SHEIR

13:13:49
Since Lusane's book came out this year, he says he's been approached by many African-Americans in the D.C. area with ties to the White House.

LUSANE

13:13:56
People will come up to me and say, you know, my grandfather used to cut grass at the White House. My uncle used to work in the kitchen. Someone told me very recently their uncle used to cut John Kennedy's hair.

SHEIR

13:14:10
Lusane wants to take all these stories and the photographs and artifacts people have collected and add one more thing to his to-do list, create a permanent exhibit.

LUSANE

13:14:19
And I think it's just, you know, part of the history of the White House that we were never told. It is part of the history of the country that we were never told about because this isn't black history, this is American history.

SHEIR

13:14:29
And so more than 200 years after slaves went to work on this famous White House, its full story is now finally coming to light. If you have personal ties to the White House and its history, we'd love to hear about it. E-mail us at metro@wamu.org or visit us on Facebook, that's facebook.com/metroconnection.org
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