Tuesday, March 22, 2011

"The Black History of the White House" by Clarence Lusane

In 1787, as the founding fathers gathered in Philadelphia to iron out the Constitution, which legitimized slavery, abolishionists were already working to end the practice of slavery in the newly formed nation.

In the skillful hands of author Clarence Lusane, the old argument, of which I have been a proponnent, that slavery was allowed to exist in the colonies in order to appease the Southern states, so that they, in turn would support a Revolution, simply loses all credibility. A quick look at the actions of President George Washington will illustrate just what I mean.

At the time President Washington was in Philadelphia, signing the "Fugitive Slave Act" into law, he was actively engaged in the pursuit and capture of one of his own slaves, a young woman named Ona "Oney" Maria Judge. She had been sent from Virginia to the new capital in Philadelphia, a free state. Technically she was a free woman. Realizing that she would be sent back to Virginia at the end of Washington's term in office, after all, the Constitution, under Article 4, considered her property, she did the unthinkable, she escaped. And Washington did the predictable thing, he signed the "Fugitive Slave Act" into law, and then had Ms. Judge pursued by bounty hunters. I am happy to report that Ms. Judge made it all the way to New Hampshire, where she died many years later, a free woman.

The book covers all the years between the Founding of our Constitution in Philadelphia, to the building of our nation's Capital City, and on through the 2008 election of Barack Obama as President. In between, the book sheds light on the daily lives of African Americans during more than 200 years in Washington, D.C., which remained a segregated city from it's beginnings in the late 18th century, until the 1950's.

Drawing upon historical accounts the book paints a picture of Washington, and our nation, during the years following our birth as a nation. It then continues on through the Civil War, the era of Jim Crow, and the early years of the 20th Century, finally culminating in the inaguaration of our first African-American President. And what a strange story it is.

Lafeyette Square Park, located across from the White House, was a slave market, even as our early Presidents sat in the White House. As the tensions heated up in the years before the Civil War, Washington was a non-state, caught between the North and the South. Abuse of Negro citizens was rampant. It was hazardous to walk alone at night for fear of being kidnapped and "sold down South." Slaves caught up North were brought back to Washington and sold at auction. Slave "pens" were everywhere in the city, and there was much money to be made in the human trafficking of slaves.

The Pearl was a ship engaged in transporting runaway slaves. On the night of April 15th, 1845 she was loaded with 70 African-Americans, some of whom were free, and set sail bound for Chesapeake Bay, and ultimately freedom. They never made it. Acting on the tip of a Negro informant, the bounty hunters were able to commandeer a boat and overtake the Pearl. When she was returned to port an auction was held, and all 70 African-Americans were sold into slavery, regardless of whether they were free or not.

Up through, and after, the Civil War things went pretty much unchanged in Washington. There would be seperate drinking fountains, restaurants and hotels all the way through the late 1950's.

In 1961 Lillian Rogers Parks wrote the first White House memoir from the perspective of the maid. The book was entitled "My 30 Years Backstairs at the White House." In the book, Ms. Parks laid bare all of the reality of being a minority employed by the world's largest democracy.

Utilizing the writings of Alonzo Fields, White House Butler from 1933-1959, Lillian Parks and Abraham Bolden, the first African-American Secret Service member, as well as the first to be assigned to the Presidential Detail, the reader gets a sense of what it was like to be "invisible." The book paints a portrait of a White House, and the Presidents, as they are caught up in a changing society, one in which African-Americans were beginning to demand, rather than ask for, equal treatment under the law.

One of the best illustrations of this time period occurs when Mrs. Roosevelt arrives in 1933, only to discover that the White House Staff is segragated, resulting in there being 2 head staffers for each department. To solve this, she fired all of the white head staff and kept the balck head staffers in their positions.

But by far the most chilling story told in this book involves Abraham Bolden, whose provocative book, "The Echo from Dealy Plaza" I reviewed in 2009. In 1958 he was recruited by the Secret Service as a "token" minority. When he met President-elect Kennedy in Chicago in 1960, he was invited to join the Presidential Protection Detail as the first African-American in that position. What happened after that is truly an amazing story.

Shunned by his fellow agents, who routinely referred to him as a "nigger", Bolden was further ostrichized for his diligence in performing his duties. He complained about his fellow agents use of drugs and rampant drinking on the job, and was relieved of his duties on the Presidential Detail and returned to the Secret Service office in Chicago. After an assassination attempt was foiled at the Army-Navy game there in 1963, another plot was foiled in Palm Beach, Florida several weeks later. By this time Agent Bolden was talking to anyone who would listen to him concerning the danger posed to the President. The other agents referred to the President as "that nigger lover", and vowed that they "would never take a bullet for him."

Agent Bolden was subsequently framed in a mob related case and shipped off to prison, where he continued to talk about what he knew. This landed him in a mental hospital, where he was subjected to drug experiments and shock therapy. He was released in 1969 and continues to fight for his vindication. His memoir, released in 2008, is one of the most compelling stories ever told.

This book is long overdue. African-Americans, working as slaves, built our nation's White House, as well as the Capitol Building itself. That they were subjected to such treatment anywhere in a "free" nation is unconscionable. That this mistreatment occurred in our nation's Capital, and in the White House itself, is almost unforgiveable.

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