Breaking the color line at the Lincoln White House
In August 1862, Abraham Lincoln invited a delegation of five Black Washingtonians to the White House. In this infamous meeting, the president lectured his guests on why African Americans should leave the country through a process called colonization. Few moments in Lincoln’s presidency appear as regrettable as this one. On the one hand, it is noteworthy that, for the first time in U.S. history, a sitting president invited a group of Black men to the White House for a conversation. On the other hand, Lincoln’s words that day were terribly condescending; he blamed the presence of African Americans in the country as the cause of the Civil War. William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper, the Liberator, noticed the complicated nature of this moment, calling it “a spectacle, as humiliating as it was extraordinary.”
Lincoln’s harshest modern critics have pointed to this meeting as evidence of his racism. But this interpretation misses important political context. Lincoln used the meeting to prepare the white northern electorate for an emancipation proclamation, which he was about to release. Of greater importance, this meeting was unlike any other of the Lincoln presidency. In every other instance when Lincoln met with African Americans — whether enslaved or free — he treated them with the utmost dignity and respect. As Frederick Douglass was so proud to say, Lincoln welcomed him at the White House “just as you have seen one gentleman receive another!”
Between 1862 and 1865, Lincoln opened the White House to African Americans in ways that would have been unthinkable before. Black men and women entered the Executive Mansion for public receptions and private meetings. Some joined Abraham and Mary Lincoln for tea. Others boldly petitioned for equality and political rights. Some came by the invitation of the president. Others walked through the White House gates uninvited and unannounced. Some offered their services to the Union army. Others called on Lincoln to ensure that U.S Colored Troops received equal treatment. Some brought gifts for the president. Others went away with food or money that they desperately needed.
A remarkable drama unfolded in wartime Washington. Black people claimed Lincoln as their president, and they entered the White House claiming it as their house, too. As a White House waiter’s son later recalled, “There was no color line there.”
Some of Lincoln’s visitors were famous. Frederick Douglass had two private interviews with Lincoln. But Lincoln also welcomed ordinary Black people whose names have been completely lost to history. One such visitor from North Carolina, who was astounded that he was welcomed through the front door of the White House, exulted, “He didn’t tell us to go round to the back door, but, like a true gentleman and noble-hearted chief, with as much courtesy and respect as though we had been the Japanese Embassy, he invited us into the White House.”
Lincoln’s kind treatment of Black visitors became widely known in Washington circles. Union nurse Mary Livermore observed, “To the lowly, to the humble, the timid colored man or woman, he bent in special kindliness.”
For three years, the president greeted African American visitors with an outstretched hand — and this, at a time when few white people were willing to shake Black hands. Many were touched by this gesture. In 1864, Douglass proudly told a friend, “He treated me as a man; he did not let me feel for a moment that there was any difference in the color of our skins! The President is a most remarkable man.” Sojourner Truth had a similar experience. After meeting Lincoln in October 1864, she remarked, “I felt that I was in the presence of a friend.”
Lincoln knew that there could be a steep political cost to pay for welcoming Black visitors into his home and office, but he did it anyway. Newspapers throughout the North reported on his meetings with African Americans, and many expressed outrage at the kind reception he gave them. A Pennsylvania paper sneered, “When did we ever have a President that made so much of the negro, or was ever willing to take him into his private and social circles as Abraham Lincoln does? Mr. Lincoln is emphatically the black man’s President and the white man’s curse.”
Although he likely never saw this editorial, Frederick Douglass would also use this phrase, but to different effect. Shortly after Lincoln’s assassination, Douglass told a New York audience that Lincoln was “emphatically the Black man’s president: the first to show any respect for their rights as men.” In conversation with African American men and women, Douglass continued, Lincoln spoke “without any thing like condecension [sic], and without in anywise reminding him of the unpopularity of his color.” In this way, Douglass concluded, Lincoln was “the first American President, who thus rose above the prejudices of his times, and country.”
Jonathan W. White is professor of American Studies at Christopher Newport University and author of “A House Built By Slaves: African American Visitors to the Lincoln White House” (2022) and “To Address You As My Friend: African Americans’ Letters to Abraham Lincoln” (2021). Follow him on Twitter @CivilWarJon.