To mark Black History Month, President Obama has been asked to recognize the role of black people in building the White House. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY) requested that the president formally acknowledge the work of the enslaved carpenters, bricklayers, stonemasons, and other male laborers who erected the majestic building in the 1790s.
In keeping with this request, I ask, too, that we remember the enslaved and free black women who served within the White House walls as maids, nurses and cooks starting in the 19th century. One prominent example was Elizabeth Keckley (1818-1907), the Lincoln family’s confidante and dress designer. Before and after purchasing her freedom from Southern bondage, she stitched dresses and gowns for elite white women, including Confederate wives. Her renown for her wizardry with the needle spread rapidly by word of mouth, bringing her to the attention of the fashionable and image-conscious Mary Todd Lincoln. Keckley became the first lady’s dressmaker and saw the inner workings of the White House from a vantage point few Americans of her race and gender had experienced.
Other black women found the White House less hospitable. Even the famous abolitionist-feminist Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) was initially rebuffed when she sought a meeting with Lincoln. Ironically, Truth was a fan of Lincoln and had even defended him to abolitionist ally Harriet Tubman, who was critical of the president’s policy of paying black soldiers less than white soldiers. In the end, it was Keckley’s intercession that garnered Truth an audience with Lincoln. On October 29, 1864, Truth and Lincoln had a cordial yet brief discussion of his policy on slavery.
As Keckley gained money and prestige, she seized upon more opportunities to empower other black people. In the 1860s, as the Union army pushed south and thousands of slaves fled North, Keckley watched black families streaming into Washington “with a great hope in their hearts, and with all their worldly goods on their backs” only to find that their “mute appeals for help too often were answered by cold neglect.” In response, she conceived of a Contraband Relief Association to assist the refugees with housing, medical care and employment. After the idea received an enthusiastic reception at her black church, she approached Mary Todd Lincoln for support. “She immediately headed my list with the first subscription of $200,” Keckley recalls.
With frequent cash contributions from both Lincolns, the association attracted generous donations of money, food, and clothing from churches, charity groups and abolitionists in the U.S., England and Scotland. Soon it was able to open chapters in other cities. Keckley was especially proud of her organization’s work to educate the younger generations of black people poised to live and work in a free society.
If you suspect that Keckley kickstarted her project with her head bowed and eyes cast downward, think again. Her 1868 memoir Behind the Scenes, an account of her employ in the White House with the Lincoln family, is an understated yet proud acknowledgment of leadership. Her note that she was reappointed to a second term as president would have read at the time as an implicit comparison to her fellow public servant President Lincoln, who also was elected to two terms.
It took almost another hundred years before a black woman would reside in the White House, but the two might have found in each other kindred spirits: Like Keckley, Michelle Obama has set new standards of taste and beauty for American women from within the White House.
The significance of Michelle Obama’s position is not lost on black women. A recent Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that more than white women, we black women place importance on the fact that the first lady is black. A majority of us say Obama is tuned in to our values and aspirations, and eight in 10 of us personally identify with her. As mothers and professionals, wives and leaders, daughters and visionaries, we see affirmation of our own potential and struggles in the first lady’s ability to balance these roles gracefully.
Yet even with Michelle Obama’s popularity ratings—which are sky-high among all genders and races—some Americans still send unambiguous, ugly signals that black women don’t belong in enclaves of power and influence. When Michelle Obama (accompanied by Jill Biden) appeared as Grand Marshal at the Ford 400 NASCAR race in November 2011, instead of respect, she was greeted with boos and jeers. The people she hadn’t won over in the crowd only could handle her power by dissing it.
Incidents like this make it hard to believe that three long centuries have passed since the back of the White House was where black women exclusively gained admittance. On this President’s Day, I’d like to honor the herstories of my everyday as well as celebrated black sisters who have entered powerful spaces without necessarily waiting for a summons. As the educator Anna Julia Cooper wrote in 1892:
Only the BLACK WOMAN can say when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.
From the formerly enslaved to the First Lady, whenever and wherever we enter, we name and claim ourselves and our communities.