11.12.2016

Slaves in the White House I

Slaves and Presidents at the White House

Construction on the President's House began in 1792 in Washington, DC, a new capital situated in a sparsely settled region far from a major population center. Eleven U.S. presidents were slaveholders. Seven of those owned slaves while living at the White House: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, John Tyler, James K. Polk, and Zachary Taylor.


Image: Black cook working in the White House kitchen
Damp and moldy, the ground floor was a difficult place for the White House staff to work and live.
Photograph by Frances Benjamin

Slave Quarters at the White House
Not only did enslaved men and women work in the White House, but they also lived there; most often in rooms in the basement. Open at ground level on the south, the basement had windows on the north facing an area that was entirely hidden from view except from the kitchen. This vaulted corridor once accessed a forty-foot kitchen with large fireplaces at each end, a family kitchen, an oval servants hall, the steward's quarters, and the servants' bedrooms.

9.28.2016

Black Women Writers of the 19th Century

African-American Women Authors in Antebellum America



Image: Middle-class black women who loved to read did not have many role models.
Credit: Jeffrey Green

Prior to the Civil War, the majority of African-Americans living in the United States were held in bondage. Although law forbade them, many found a way to learn to read and write. More African-Americans than we could have imagined published poetry, biographies, novels and short stories.

11.28.2014

Mary Peake

pioneer teacher in the Civil War

Teacher of Runaway Slaves at Fortress Monroe

Mary Peake was a teacher, best known for starting a school for the children of former slaves in the summer of 1861, under the shade of a tree that would become known as the Emancipation Oak in present-day Hampton, Virginia. This makeshift outdoor classroom provided the foundation of what would become Hampton University.

Image: Mary Peake

Early Years
In 1823, Mary Smith Kelsey was born free in Norfolk, Virginia. Her father was an Englishman "of rank and culture" and her mother was a free woman of color, described as light-skinned. When Mary was six, her mother sent her to the town of Alexandria (then part of the District of Columbia) to attend school while living with her aunt Mary Paine.

3.18.2014

Women Slaves in Colonial Virginia

African American woman in front of slave cabin

Women Slaves in the Colony of Virginia

Slavery is a civil relationship in which one person has absolute power over the fortune, life and liberty of another. Chattel slavery further defines that relationship with the added dimension of ownership as personal property (chattel), in which the chattel can be bought and sold as if they were commodities. Chattel slavery was legal in the American colonies from the mid-17th century to the end of the Civil War in 1865.

A slave is a human being who is forced to obey the commands of others, and to work for nothing. A chattel slave is an enslaved person who is owned forever and whose children and children's children are automatically enslaved as well. A chattel slave has no rights, and is no longer viewed as a human being, but as an object used to accomplish a task, like any other tool.

2.18.2013

Sojourner Truth

image of an itinerant Methodist preacher who became a leader in 19th century social reforms movements
Sojourner Truth was an African American abolitionist and women's rights activist who escaped from slavery in New York in 1826. She began as an itinerant preacher and became a nationally known advocate for equality and justice, sponsoring a variety of social reforms, including women's property rights, universal suffrage and prison reform.

She was born Isabella Baumfree in 1797 on the estate of Colonel Johannes Hardenbergh in Swartekill, a Dutch settlement in upstate New York. She was one of 13 children born to Elizabeth and James Baumfree, who were slaves on the Hardenbergh plantation. Both the Baumfrees and the Hardenberghs spoke Dutch in their daily lives. After the colonel's death, ownership of the Baumfrees passed to his son Charles.

2.08.2013

Maria Stewart

First African American Woman to Lecture in Public

Maria Stewart was an essayist, lecturer, abolitionist and women's rights activist. She was the earliest known American woman to lecture in public on political issues. Stewart is known for four powerful speeches she delivered in Boston in the early 1830s - a time when no woman, black or white, dared to address an audience from a public platform.

Childhood and Early Years
She was born free as Maria Miller in 1803 in Hartford, Connecticut. All that is known about her parents is their surname, Miller. At the age of five, she lost both her parents and was forced to become a servant in the household of a white clergyman. She lived with this family for ten years.

9.08.2012

Rebecca Jackson

Founder of a Black Shaker Community

Little is known of the early life of Rebecca Cox Jackson (1795-1871), a free black woman who became an elder in the Shaker religion, which was founded by Mother Ann Lee just before the Revolutionary War. At age 35 Jackson underwent a religious conversion during a thunderstorm, after which she became an itinerant preacher and established a black Shaker community in Philadelphia in 1859. There are no known images of Rebecca Cox Jackson.

a Shaker church and its parishioners
Image: African American Church in Philadelphia by Pavel Petrovich Svinin, 1815

Rebecca Cox was born on February 15, 1795 to a free family in Hornstown, Pennsylvania and lived until the age of three or four with her grandmother, who died when Rebecca was seven. From the time she was ten, she was responsible for the care of two younger siblings. Rebecca's mother died when she was thirteen, and she was taken in by her brother Joseph Cox, a thirty-one-year old African Methodist Episcopal minister, a widower and father of six children.

In 1830, she married Samuel S. Jackson, who also lived in the Cox house, and they continued living with her brother and his children. They had no children. In addition to managing her brother's home, Rebecca worked as a seamstress, one of the most common occupations for black women during that period, even after getting married.

In July 1830, at age 35, Rebecca experienced a religious awakening during a severe thunderstorm. For years, her fear of storms had been so great that, "In time of thunder and lightning I would have to go to bed because it made me so sick." On this day, she was unable to contain her fear, convinced that she would die during the storm. In her moment of greatest despair, as she prayed for either death or redemption, she suddenly felt as though "the cloud burst," and the lightning that had been "the messenger of death, was now the messenger of peace, joy and consolation."

After this revelation, Rebecca began to experience visions in which she discovered the presence of a divine inner voice that instructed to use her spiritual gifts. She claimed that in these dreams she could heal the sick, make the sinful holy, speak with angels and even fly. She left her husband's bed to live a life of "Christian perfection." Her inner voice instructed her "to travel some and speak to the people."

At first, Rebecca recounted her visionary experiences and held prayer meetings in people’s homes. She soon developed a large following – inspiring both blacks and whites, mostly women – through neighborhood "Covenant Meetings." She was harshly criticized for "aleading the men" and for her refusal to formally join any church, which several Methodist ministers saw as "chopping up our churches."

Morris Brown, who succeeded Richard Allen as Bishop of the AME Church, came to a meeting led by Rebecca with the intention of stopping her; but after listening to her, he declared, "If ever the Holy Ghost was in any place, it was in that meeting. Let her alone now."

Yet Rebecca was still frustrated by her inability to read and write. Her brother had promised to teach her, but had not been able to do so, being tired every night. She resolved to "not think hard of my brother, … [who] had always been kind and like a father to me." She continued to rely on him to read and write for her. Until she realized he had made substantial changes in letters she had dictated.

8.03.2012

Jane Johnson

North Carolina slave who was freed in Philadelphia

Slave Freed by Abolitionists in Philadelphia

Jane Johnson (1820-1872) was a slave whose escape to freedom was the focus of precedent-setting legal cases in 19th century Philadelphia. Safeguarded by Philadelphia abolitionists after her escape in 1855, Johnson later settled in Boston. There she married, and sheltered other fugitives slaves. Her son Isaiah served in the American Civil War with the 55th Massachusetts Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops.

Jane Johnson is believed to have been born into slavery as Jane Williams in or near Washington, DC, the daughter of John and Jane Williams; the exact year of her birth is unknown. Virtually nothing is known of her early life, which she presumably spent on Virginia plantations; it is believed that she lived for part of that time in Caroline County and had several owners.

4.01.2011

Sally Hemings

Thomas Jefferson slave who gave birth to his children

Thomas Jefferson's Slave and Mistress

Sally Hemings was the daughter of Elizabeth Hemings and, allegedly, John Wayles, Thomas Jefferson's father-in-law - Elizabeth Hemings and her children did live at John Wayles' plantation during his lifetime. In 18th-century Virginia, children born to slave mothers inherited their legal status, therefore Elizabeth and Sally Hemings and all their children, were legally slaves, even when the fathers were their white masters.

If Sally Hemings' father was John Wayles, she would have been the half-sister of Thomas Jefferson's wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson. After Wayles died in 1773, Martha inherited the Hemings family; when Martha died in 1782, she left the Hemings family to Thomas Jefferson.

2.11.2011

Elizabeth Freeman

Massachusetts slave who sued for her freedom in court and won

Black History Month: Massachusetts Slave

Mum Bett was among the first black slaves in Massachusetts awarded freedom in court under the 1780 constitution, and a decision that slavery was illegal. Her county court case, decided in August 1781, was cited as a precedent in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court appeal review of the Quock Walker case. When the state Supreme Court upheld Walker's freedom under the constitution, it was considered to have informally ended slavery in Massachusetts.

When Elizabeth Freeman was nearly 70 years old, Susan Ridley Sedgwick painted a miniature portrait of her in watercolor on ivory. Sedgwick was the young wife of Theodore Sedgwick, Jr., whose father had represented Freeman in her claim for freedom from slavery under the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780.

12.30.2008

Jenny Slew

statue of female slave 18th century

Illegally Enslaved Woman

Jenny Slew was born circa 1719 to a free white woman and an enslaved black man. That fact would become the core of an historical legal case forty-six years later in Ipswich, Essex County, Massachusetts Bay Colony. Jenny contended that her parents had married and established a home and family. Jenny Slew had been raised free and lived all her life as a free woman, but in 1762 she was kidnapped and enslaved by John Whipple.

In most of the colonies, she would not have been able to turn to the law for help. As a slave, she would have been banned from the courts. However, by that time in Massachusetts an enslaved person could bring a civil suit.

9.26.2008

Lucy Terry

colonial New England slave

African American Poet


The baby whose slavery name would become Lucy Terry was born in Africa around 1724. Slave traders sold her in Rhode Island – which dominated the colonial American slave trade – in about 1730. During the period when Lucy arrived, the rum-slave-molasses traffic from Newport or Bristol to Africa and the West Indies was in its early development.

Early Years
It is highly likely that Lucy was taken from Rhode Island to Enfield, Connecticut, which would explain why she was known as Lucy Terry. Since most blacks weren't named until they were purchased and transported to their owners, Lucy probably came to be called Terry through an association with Samuel Terry, one of the early settlers and founders of Enfield.

1.30.2008

Dorothy Creole

colonial women slaves

Slave in New Amsterdam

Dorothy Creole was one of the first black women in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam on the island of Manhattan. She was African, but she came from a world where West Africans and Europeans had been trading for two centuries and their cultures had mixed. She may have spoken Spanish or Portuguese, in addition to her African language. The name Creole may have begun as a descriptive term used by Europeans, and later developed into a surname.

Dorothy might have arrived in 1627, when records indicate that three enslaved women were brought into New Amsterdam, which was little more than a muddy village with thirty wooden houses and a population of less than two hundred people. All slaves brought into the colony during its early years were the property of the Dutch West India Company, the founder and owner of the Colony.

1.28.2008

Elizabeth Key

female slave in the Virginia Colony who won her freedom from slavery in court

First African Woman to Win Her Freedom in Court

Elizabeth Key was the first woman of African ancestry in the American colonies to sue for her freedom from slavery and win. Elizabeth Key won her freedom and that of her infant son on July 21, 1656 in the colony of Virginia, in one of the earliest freedom suits in the colonies. She sued based on the fact that her father was an Englishman and that she was a baptized Christian.

Born in Warwick County, Virginia in 1630, Elizabeth Key was the illegitimate daughter of an enslaved black mother and a white English planter father, Thomas Key, who was also a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses. She spent the first several years of her life with her mother.