About the National Archives

Welcome Remarks for A House Built by Slaves: African American Visitors to the Lincoln White House

Greetings from the National Archives’ flagship building in Washington, DC, which sits on the ancestral lands of the Nacotchtank peoples. I’m David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, and it's my pleasure to welcome you to today’s conversation with Jonathan White about his new book A House Built by Slaves, which looks at Lincoln’s unprecedented welcoming of African American men and women to the White House.

Before we begin, I’d like to tell you about two programs coming up in the next week on our YouTube channel.

On Tuesday, March 1, at 1 p.m., Neil Thompson will tell us about his new book, The First Kennedys, which looks into the roots of the Kennedy dynasty, beginning with Patrick and Bridget, who fled Ireland during the Great Famine and whose descendants were elected to high government office.

And on Monday, March 7, at 1 p.m., Megan Kate Nelson will discuss her new book, Saving Yellowstone, which gives the fascinating and complex historical context behind the national park’s establishment 150 years ago this month.

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Before Abraham Lincoln moved into the White House, notes author Jonathan White, “African Americans were more likely to be bought and sold by a sitting president than to be welcomed as his guests.” In his new book, A House Built by Slaves, White further asserts that “Lincoln’s White House became a site of significant transformations in the history of race in America.”

Black visitors of every background who came to Lincoln’s White House were greeted by the President respectfully and with dignity. Lincoln welcomed both those whom he specifically invited and those who walked in unannounced.

One drop-in visitor in August 1863 was Frederick Douglass, who came to advocate for better treatment of African American soldiers. Douglass later wrote to a friend, that he “was received cordially” and that “my whole interim with the President was gratifying and did much to assure me that Slavery would not survive the war.”

We are able to read the actual words written by historical figures because they have been preserved in archives, museums, and special collections—and today, often in digital form.

The letter from Douglass that I quoted comes from the Papers of Frederick Douglass, which along with the Papers of Abraham Lincoln is one of the many projects supported by the National Archives through the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.

These publications projects—as well as the many, many unpublished documentary sources preserved in research institutions—are the raw materials of history. For his latest book, Jonathan White has drawn from an array of primary sources to show us the interaction between President Lincoln and Black leaders during the Civil War.

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Jonathan W. White is associate professor of American studies at Christopher Newport University and author or editor of several previous books, including To Address You As My Friend: African Americans’ Letters to Abraham Lincoln and Midnight in America: Darkness, Sleep, and Dreams During the Civil War. His writing has appeared in Smithsonian, Time, the New York Times, and the Washington Post.

Now let’s hear from Jonathan White. Thank you for joining us today.