Rediscover the forgotten story of how President Lincoln welcomed African Americans to his White House in America’s most divided and war-torn era.
Jonathan White illuminates why Lincoln’s then-unprecedented welcoming of African American men and women to the White House transformed the trajectory of race relations in the United States. From his 1862 meetings with Black Christian ministers, Lincoln began inviting African Americans of every background into his home, from ex-slaves from the Deep South to champions of abolitionism such as Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth. More than a good-will gesture, the president conferred with his guests about the essential issues of citizenship and voting rights. Drawing from an array of primary sources, White reveals how African Americans used the White House as a national stage to amplify their calls for equality. Even 155 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln’s inclusion of African Americans remains a necessary example in a country still struggling from racial divisions today.
Jonathan W. White is associate professor of American Studies at Christopher Newport University. He is the author of ten books and over 100 articles, essays, and reviews on Lincoln and the Civil War. His writing has appeared in Smithsonian, Time, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. He lives in Newport News, Virginia.
Preface. “There Was No Color Line There”
Chapter 1. “A Continual Torment To Me”
Interlude. The Office
Chapter 2. “The Political Wonders of the Year”
Chapter 3. “A Spectacle, as Humiliating as it was Extraordinary”
Chapter 4. “The Lord Has Work For Me Here”
Interlude. Foreign Diplomats
Chapter 5. “The Promise Being Made, Must Be Kept”
Chapter 6. “I Felt Big There”
Chapter 7. “Without Molestation or Insult”
Interlude. The Ballot
Chapter 8. “To Keep the Jewel of Liberty within the Family of Freedom”
Chapter 9. “The Object is a Worthy One”
Chapter 10. “A Testimonial of Her Appreciation”
Interlude. City Point
Chapter 11. “Douglass, I Hate Slavery as Much as You Do”
Chapter 12. “In the Presence of a Friend”
Chapter 13. “All the People . . . Are Invited”
Interlude. The House Chamber
Chapter 14. “I’ve Come to Propose Something to You”
Chapter 15. “A Sacred Effort”
Chapter 16. “She is My Equal, and the Equal of All Others”
Chapter 17. “The Great Guiding Hand that Now Lay Paralyzed in Death”
Epilogue. “Emphatically the Black Man’s President”
Appendix. Unconfirmed Meetings
White, the author and editor of several books on Abraham Lincoln, extends his recent work on Black Americans’ engagement with Lincoln to include their visits to Lincoln’s White House. Drawing heavily on the letters, speeches, memoirs, and newspaper accounts of such meetings, White shows that Black people were welcome visitors, both as invited guests and uninvited drop-ins. That Lincoln extended his hand in greeting them and treated them with dignity and respect spoke volumes about his attitudes toward Black people and gave lie to arguments then, and later by some historians, that Lincoln regarded Black people as inferior and unworthy of serious attention. Rather, as White tells it, Lincoln took Black leaders into his confidence, sought their advice, and encouraged them to promote his policies, especially those securing emancipation and raising Black troops. Lincoln’s unassuming nature in dealing with Black people earned him the respect of Black leaders, but it also cost him politically among northern whites who worried Lincoln’s practices opened the door to social and political equality. White argues these visits did much to move Lincoln toward ever stronger commitments to civil rights. An original and revealing book on a subject heretofore surprisingly missing from the large Lincoln literature.
White, a professor of American studies at Christopher Newport University, provides a granular study of Abraham Lincoln’s practice of welcoming African Americans to the White House. Pushing back against historians who have questioned Lincoln’s commitment to “racial egalitarianism,” White documents the president’s meetings with Daniel Payne, a leader of the African Methodist Episcopal Church; former slaves who joined the Union Army; and abolitionists including Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass.... this is a rich and comprehensive account of a groundbreaking aspect of Lincoln’s presidency.
In a pioneering work of original scholarship, Jonathan White sheds new light on Lincoln's lifelong encounters with Black Americans from his boyhood through his presidency. In our troubled times, A House Built by Slaves makes a brilliant, necessary, and convincing case for Abraham Lincoln's greatness as a towering American hero and as a valiant martyr to the cause of freedom and civil rights.
White does not write about the enslaved people who helped build the White House but rather capably documents the experiences of African Americans who came to see President Lincoln.
This is an intriguing addition to the world of Lincoln scholarship that takes us inside the Executive Mansion at the dawn of the second founding of the nation. It’s more than a record of handshakes; it’s an attempt to size Lincoln up through the eyes of Black Americans who visited the “people’s house” that their people had built and in whose names they were determined to win the fight for freedom and citizenship.
Jonathan White tells intimate stories of Black Americans—soldier and civilian, men and women, famous and obscure—often in their own words, who met Abraham Lincoln during the tumult of the Civil War. Those conversations often challenged Lincoln, leading him to embrace freedom and respect for all Americans as redemption of the war’s agony. This eloquent, humane, and important book helps us understand the crucial role played by Black Americans in guiding that journey.
Prior to Abraham Lincoln occupying the White House, Jonathan W. White reminds us, “African Americans were more likely to be bought and sold by a sitting president than to be welcomed as his guests.” The White House became a far more welcoming place for African Americans under Lincoln—and because of Lincoln. White leaves no detail unnoticed as he recreates the many visits to Lincoln’s White House by African Americans. Although Lincoln could be clumsy at first at such encounters, he grew to embrace and enjoy the visits—all the while facing in response a storm of racist invective by his political opponents. White’s excellent, deeply-researched book corrects recent factual inaccuracies and harsh judgments surrounding Lincoln’s treatment of African Americans. In the process, he offers a rich, vivid portrait of the White House in wartime, its vestibules and receiving rooms enriched with the presence of African Americans welcomed by a President eager to hear what they had to say.
A House Built by Slaves continues the discourse regarding Lincoln’s racial views and argues that the president’s treatment of African American visitors to the White House was an indicator of his willingness to accept black men and women as equals. Jonathan White has produced an important work that offers insight into Lincoln’s response to prevailing racial sensibilities and political fallout while attempting to be president to all the people.