The invisibles The untold story of African American slaves in the White House

Jesse J. Holland

Book - 2016

The Invisibles chronicles the African American presence inside the White House from its beginnings in 1782 until 1862, when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation that granted slaves their freedom. During these years, slaves were the only African Americans to whom the most powerful men in the United States were exposed on a daily, and familiar, basis. By reading about these often-intimate relationships, readers will better understand some of the views that various preside...nts held about class and race in American society, and how these slaves contributed not only to the life and comforts of the presidents they served, but to America as a whole.

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Location Call Number   Status
2nd Floor 975.3/Holland Checked In
Guilford, Connecticut : LP [2016]
Physical Description
xiii, 225 pages ; illustrations, portraits : 24 cm
Includes bibliographical references (p. 197-212) and index.
Main Author
Jesse J. Holland (author)
  • Introduction
  • William Lee and New York City
  • The beginning of African slavery in the United States
  • Oney Judge and Philadelphia
  • Slavery and the construction of the White House
  • Thomas Jefferson and the first White House slaves
  • The beginning of the great American melting pot
  • Paul Jennings and the burning of the White House
  • Slavery, indentured servitude and the law
  • Andrew Jackson's stables
  • The rest
  • Conclusion.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

In this powerful follow-up to 2007's Black Men Built the Capitol, Holland, Washington correspondent for the Associated Press, shares the story of the slaves who worked inside the White House from its early years until President Lincoln's 1862 Emancipation Proclamation. Holland makes sure to note that 12 out of the first 18 American presidents owned slaves, putting them to work as cooks, butlers, maids, body servants, and doormen. Among Holland's superb slave portraits are several standouts, including those of William Lee (enslaved by George Washington), Oney Judge (Martha Washington), Sally Hemings (Thomas Jefferson), Paul Jennings (James Madison), and Elias Polk (James K. Polk)-who later partnered with the southern Democratic Party in defending the rights of white elites. Holland effectively captures the financial and political history of slavery, federal laws regarding fugitive slaves, race mixing, anxieties over slave revolts, and the rigid skin color-based caste system of house and field help. Holland's account of slaves who built and sustained the White House answers many hard historical questions, and it reveals how little tribute has been given to the enslaved persons who contributed extensively to the functioning of early American institutions. (Jan.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Review by Library Journal Review

Journalist and historian Holland (Black Men Built the Capitol) invites readers to take "a first look" at the enslaved persons who served nine of the first 12 U.S. presidents to provide a perspective from and on the backstairs world of presidential residences. As the author shows, slaves were essential in building and maintaining the White House, especially because presidents provided their own staff at their own expense. Holland concentrates principally on the slaves who served George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, and James K. Polk and devotes more attention to their lives away from rather than in the presidential home, yet he points to the combination of loyalty and independence that marked the slaves' complicated lives and revealed their often ambivalent feelings about the presidents and first ladies they served. -VERDICT Hardly definitive, often speculative, sometimes digressive but always suggestive, Holland's book shows how the personal became political, as presidents arguing for American liberty remained entangled by slavery in their private lives and public service. This is a useful first step toward a larger study of slavery and the presidency that we sorely need if we are ever to understand the hold slavery had on the republic.-Randall M. Miller, St. Joseph's Univ., Philadelphia © Copyright 2016. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted. Review by Kirkus Book Review

Ten of the first 12 United States presidents were slave masters. In this brisk history, Holland (Black Men Built the Capitol: Discovering African American History In and Around Washington, D.C., 2007), Washington correspondent for the Associated Press, examines the tangled relationships between slaves and the presidents they served, from George Washington to Ulysses S. Grant, and exposes the convoluted laws enacted to impede slaves' quests for freedom. Of the first 12 presidents, only John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams, fierce opponents of slavery, did not own slaves, thereby incurring heavy costs for domestic help to maintain the White House. Although some slaves' lives have been lost to history, Holland creates a vivid portrait of many, including William Lee, who worked as Washington's "body servant," and Oney Judge, born at Mount Vernon, who was Martha Washington's favorite. They were among some 150 slaves that Washington amassed by the time of the Revolution, many bought by his wife. Martha cherished Oney, and she was devastated when the woman fled from servitude. Tracked down, Oney was told that the Washingtons would free her when she returned to thembut she didn't believe the offer. "I am free now and choose to remain so," she replied. Holland reprises Jefferson's connection to the Hemings family, whose descendants claimed that he fathered Sally Hemings' children, and he reveals that even presidents who spoke against slavery kept slaves to run their farms and work on their land. James Madison, convinced that slaves should not be freed into white America, founded the American Colonization Society, "dedicated to freeing slaves and transporting them to the west coast of Africa." James Monroe, Henry Clay, and Andrew Jackson also endorsed that idea. Several thousand freed slaves were sent to Liberia from 1820 to 1840; in honor of Monroe, the capital was renamed Monrovia. A quick, informative history of a lamentable chapter in America's past. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.