Opinion | White House

Women of Lafayette Park: Stories of resistance, equality, and preservation

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Lafayette Park, the seven-acre area of land directly north of the White House, contains the looming statues of four European-born Revolutionary War heroes, along with the equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson as its centerpiece. Most visitors who enter the park for a closer look at the White House are likely unaware of the park's remarkable past - particularly the pivotal role that women played here in resisting slavery, pursuing equality, and preserving history.

These previously elusive stories bring contemporary relevance to Lafayette Park, not only as green space near the White House but as a site of independent historic purpose.

Slavery was ubiquitous in Washington, D.C., and Lafayette Park was no exception. During the initial construction, enslaved people worked alongside European craftsmen, immigrant laborers, free African Americans, and local residents to build the White House. As the federal capital gradually took shape and grew, enslaved workers remained a vital part of the city's workforce, including in private homes. In the late 1820s, an enslaved woman named Charlotte Dupuy (or Dupee) lived at Decatur House with her enslaver, Secretary of State Henry Clay, who was renting the residence on Lafayette Square. Charlotte sued for her freedom and the freedom of her children in U.S. Circuit Court in 1829, claiming that Clay had violated an agreement made between Dupuy and her previous owner. Although Dupuy lost her case, her actions inspired others to join the fight against slavery, and her resistance resonated within the District's enslaved community. In 1840, Clay manumitted Dupuy and her daughter; he freed Dupuy's son four years later.

In 1915, Lafayette Park became the headquarters for the National Woman's Party (NWP) during the push for the Nineteenth Amendment. The NWP's leader, Alice Paul, chose the park because of its proximity to the White House. On Jan. 10, 1917, twelve women emerged from Cameron House on the east side of the square and became the first citizens in American history to picket and protest in front of the White House. Their pursuit of voting equality for women came with significant costs. On June 22, 1917, the first suffragists were arrested outside the White House; the charge was "obstruction of traffic." Before women won the right to vote in 1920, at least 168 women served jail or prison time due to their persistent protest inside Lafayette Park. Their willingness to sacrifice their own freedom for the right to vote became known in the suffrage movement as the "turning point."

In the early 1960s, Lafayette Park and the surrounding neighborhood that had witnessed these historic moments nearly disappeared. A young woman in her early 30s, who also happened to be the First Lady of the United States, intervened to prevent its destruction. During the Dwight Eisenhower administration, Congress had authorized the demolition of the historic buildings on the east and west sides of Lafayette Square, including the Old Executive Office Building. According to the proposed design, high-rise office buildings would replace the historic structures that currently occupy the square. After learning about the plan, Jacqueline Kennedy - who founded the White House Historical Association (WHHA) in 1961 - proceeded with an energized and spirited effort to undo it. First, she approached David E. Finley Jr., the founding chairman of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, as well as the chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts and the WHHA, to join her cause and support a reversal. After learning that the General Services Administration agency head, Bernard Boutin, would make the final decision, she and Finley persuaded him to scrap the plans for modernizing the square. Mrs. Kennedy's intervention not only saved the buildings but also the historical landscape imbued with Lafayette Park's diverse history for future generations.

Thanks to a partnership between the National Park Service and the White House Historical Association, three new wayside markers on the north side of the park, close to Black Lives Matter Plaza, now tell the story of this inspiring tract of land situated directly across from the White House.

The park is appropriately named after the Marquis de Lafayette, whose statue appears in its southeastern corner. In addition to serving in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, Lafayette was also an early supporter of women's rights, advocating for increased access to education, self-determination, and marital autonomy.

Although men are memorialized with statues in Lafayette Park today, it was women who made and saved history in this consequential space.

Colleen J. Shogan is a Senior Vice President at the White House Historical Association and Director of the David Rubenstein National Center for White House History. She previously served as the Vice-Chair of the Women's Suffrage Centennial Commission.

Matthew R. Costello is Vice President of the David M. Rubenstein National Center for White House History and Senior Historian for the White House Historical Association.