Last month, the association announced the creation of a joint two-year fellowship with American University’s Antiracist Research & Policy Center for a graduate student to continue the work.
“The creation of this fellowship is an important opportunity to deepen our understanding of slavery’s enduring legacy in our nation’s capital.” said Stewart McLaurin, the association’s president. “The protests that have erupted this summer over issues of racial injustice are a stark reminder of how important this work is.”
Mia Owens, a first-year graduate student in AU’s public history program, was selected as the inaugural fellow. Owens, 23, grew up in Birmingham, Ala., and immersed herself in the civil rights history of her hometown. She says the opportunity to do this work at this moment in American life is crucial.
Because of the pandemic, Owens will remain in Alabama for this semester and begin her work with the association from a distance. But that isn’t diminishing her enthusiasm for the project.
“I think especially right now, when so many people are focusing and having conversations about racial injustice in the country … it is so important that we as historians also contribute to that field and look at this history that has been overlooked for so long,” Owens said.
For the past two years, the White House Historical Association has been examining the ties between the president’s home and slavery. Earlier this year, it launched “Slavery in the President’s Neighborhood,” an online exhibit that shared research about how the White House relied on labor by enslaved people from its inception through the first half of the 19th century.
The research found that more than 300 enslaved men, women and children worked in the house or on the grounds over that time as builders, cleaners, servers, cooks and gardeners. Captive and unpaid, they worked to serve the leader of a country founded on freedom as an inherent right.
The historians determined that enslaved people served in the White House under 10 presidents beginning with George Washington. They learned as well that Thomas Jefferson, who owned more enslaved people than any other president, chose to employ white servants at the White House because, as he explained to a friend in a letter, “At Washington I prefer white servants, who, when they misbehave, can be exchanged.” And they discovered that President Andrew Jackson, while in office, purchased a young enslaved girl named Emeline, 8, to work in the White House.
Acknowledging and documenting the history that was for so long ignored is an essential responsibility, said Colleen Shogan, senior vice president and director of the David Rubenstein Center for White House History. That’s especially true, she said, as the nation continues to wrestle and come to terms with its legacy of racial injustice.
“You can’t understand what has happened in this country, you can’t process these occurrences of injustice without understanding the history that led up to them,” Shogan said. “The White House plays one particular role within that larger story of American slavery and