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The Black History of the White House

By Clarence Lusane

About the Book

The Black History of the White House presents the untold history, racial politics, and shifting significance of the White House as experienced by African Americans, from the generations of enslaved people who helped to build it or were forced to work there to its first black First Family, the Obamas.

Clarence Lusane juxtaposes significant events in White House history with the ongoing struggle for democratic, civil, and human rights by black Americans and demonstrates that only during crises have presidents used their authority to advance racial justice. He describes how in 1901 the building was officially named the “White House” amidst a furious backlash against President Roosevelt for inviting Booker T. Washington to dinner, and how that same year that saw the consolidation of white power with the departure of the last black Congressmember elected after the Civil War. Lusane explores how, from its construction in 1792 to its becoming the home of the first black president, the White House has been a prism through which to view the progress and struggles of black Americans seeking full citizenship and justice.

“Clarence Lusane is one of America’s most thoughtful and critical thinkers on issues of race, class and power.”—Manning Marable

""Barack Obama may be the first black president in the White House, but he's far from the first black person to work in it. In this fascinating history of all the enslaved people, workers and entertainers who spent time in the president's official residence over the years, Clarence Lusane restores the White House to its true colors.""—Barbara Ehrenreich

""Reading The Black History of the White House shows us how much we DON'T know about our history, politics, and culture. In a very accessible and polished style, Clarence Lusane takes us inside the key national events of the American past and present. He reveals new dimensions of the black presence in the US from revolutionary days to the Obama campaign. Yes, 'black hands built the White House'—enslaved black hands—but they also built this country's economy, political system, and culture, in ways Lusane shows us in great detail. A particularly important feature of this book its personal storytelling: we see black political history through the experiences and insights of little-known participants in great American events. The detailed lives of Washington's slaves seeking freedom, or the complexities of Duke Ellington's relationships with the Truman and Eisenhower White House, show us American racism, and also black America's fierce hunger for freedom, in brand new and very exciting ways. This book would be a great addition to many courses in history, sociology, or ethnic studies courses. Highly recommended!""—Howard Winant

""The White House was built with slave labor and at least six US presidents owned slaves during their time in office. With these facts, Clarence Lusane, a political science professor at American University, opens The Black History of the White House(City Lights), a fascinating story of race relations that plays out both on the domestic front and the international stage. As Lusane writes, 'The Lincoln White House resolved the issue of slavery, but not that of racism.' Along with the political calculations surrounding who gets invited to the White House are matters of musical tastes and opinionated first ladies, ingredients that make for good storytelling.""—Boston Globe

Dr. Clarence Lusane has published in The Washington Post, The Miami Herald, The Baltimore Sun, Oakland Tribune, Black Scholar, and Race and Class. He often appears on PBS, BET, C-SPAN, and other national media.

Reviews

"The historical patterns elucidated within Lusane's work will have a profound impact on the perceptions of social work students (BSW and MSW). Concepts of race relationships will be altered. In addition, I found that the biographical sketches are reminiscent of Kennedy's Profiles in Courage…The book will be a great asset to the intellectual and emotional development of social work students."—Journal of Social Work Values & Ethics

"Dr. Clarence Lusane, program director for Comparative and Regional Studies at American University, painted an interesting link between African Americans and the White House dating all the way back to its construction. Throughout the course of his research, Dr. Lusane found that slave labor was used in the construction of the White House and other buildings in Washington, D.C. His book, The Black History of the White House, will certainly be a lesson to us all."—Amber Gray, The Bulletin, Vol. 23, No. 3

"The Obamas were the first African American first family, but not the first residents. This thoroughly researched and gripping book shares the untold stories of some of the people who were enslaved by U.S. presidents, including stories of resistance and escape. Lusane describes the myriad ways that the White House and the lives of African Americans have been intertwined throughout U.S. history. This is the only book to document this essential story in our country's history."—Rethinking Schools

"Clarence Lusane's Black History of the White House came out late last year and flew under the radar at most of the major book reviews. But Lusane is an elegant, impassioned writer, and the book—which is full of stories we’d never encountered in American History 101—is totally engrossing. Lusane starts off in the 18th century, working his way up to Barack Obama’s White House. Presidents Washington, Madison, and Roosevelt (the first) come in for especially close examination, but you’ll also read about 'Blind Tom' Wiggins (an autistic savant who was the first African-American to give a professional performance at the White House), James Benjamin Parker (an extremely large man who became a national hero after helping to subdue President McKinley’s assassin), and other figures who are more or less ignored by conventional historians. This is a serious, necessary book, but not a humorless one, and one of our favorite sections involves the forgotten campaign to draft Dizzy Gillespie to run against Lyndon Johnson in 1964: 'Rather than "secretaries" he would have "ministers,"' Lusane writes, 'including Max Roach as Minister of Defense, bassist Charles Mingus as Minister of Peace, Malcolm X as Attorney General, composer Duke Ellington as Ambassador to the Vatican, Louis Armstrong as Minister of Agriculture, and singer Ray Charles would be in charge of the Library of Congress. Other positions were to go to Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Carmen McRae, Woody Herman, and Count Basie.'"—The Observer's "Very Short List"

"The author concludes from his research that there is little doubt the first African American in the White House was a slave. In fact, 25 percent of our presidents were slaveholders. And between the time of slavery and now—with our nation's first black president—there is a long and storied history of blacks in the White House, from servants to lobbyists to Secret Service agents, reporters, activists, officials and more."—Chicago Sun Times

"The Black History of the White House features stories of those who were forced to work on the construction of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and the White House slaves and servants who went on to write books. Readers hear from the Secret Service agents who were harassed by their peers to the Washington insiders who rose to the highest levels of power and behind-the-scenes with Black artists