Above photo courtesy CC-BY-SA-3.0/Matt H. Wade at Wikipedia.
The White House. Most people around the world know it as the home of the American President. But the Executive Mansion represents far more than that—it is first and foremost the People’s House. Beyond the politics of the presidency, the White House offers a window into American history like perhaps no other historic site in the United States. It reflects wider cultural, economic, social, legal, and political changes in our country.
While First Lady Jaqueline Kennedy set a museum-quality standard for its preservation in 1961, the White House is still used for its original intended purpose—the home of the sitting president. This restricts the number of visitors to the White House every year. Visitors to Washington, D.C. are able to visit most of the world-class museums, such as the Smithsonian Museums or the National Museum of Women in the Arts, with ease, but most will not get the chance to visit the White House. Further, there are the many people who may never have the chance to visit Washington, D.C. at all.
Enter the White House Historical Association (WHHA). Founded by First Lady Jaqueline Kennedy in 1961 as a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization with the mission to protect, preserve, and promote the rich history of the White House, the Association has long provided educational resources for those who visit the White House and those who cannot make it to the nation’s capital. In more recent years, the Association has adopted a robust digital strategy, offering a content-rich website with diverse and ever-growing resources that explore the history of the White House.
One of the Association’s recent research initiatives has taken a largely digital form, and its content is profoundly important to understanding the history of the People’s House. Slavery in the President’s Neighborhood is a research initiative with the goal of bringing the voices of enslaved people back into the historical forefront, and it demonstrates the impact digital history can have on a wide ranging audience. Its digital presence culminates around an interactive timeline that takes the visitor through the histories of enslaved people at the White House and in the area surrounding it, known as the President’s Neighborhood.
Upon entering the timeline visitors are met with this text:
“Many people think of the White House as a symbol of democracy, but it also embodies America’s complicated past and the paradoxical relationship between slavery in the nation’s capital. While there are few written accounts of the enslaved and free African Americans who built, lived, and worked in the White House, their voices can be found in letters, newspapers, memoirs, census records, architecture, and oral histories. By connecting these details from diverse sources, the White House Historical Association seeks to return these individuals to the historical forefront.”
As visitors scroll through the timeline, they move through the history of the White House from the perspective of enslaved people, beginning with slavery before the White House to the ratification of the 15th amendment in 1870. But the timeline does not end there—rather it fades out—suggesting that historians continue to add new content to the timeline. Most of the featured points link out to detailed articles with more information and historical images.
Throughout the timeline, the stories of the enslaved, such as Gracy Bradley, Paul Jennings, John Freeman, and so many others, are visually oriented within the timeline to make the stories of these enslaved men and women central to the historical narrative within the timeline, rather than about the presidents and first ladies who enslaved them. Nonetheless, the timeline is routed in overview articles about each administration’s relationship to slavery. This orients the visitor with something familiar—a specific president—as they are given supplemental information about enslaved people of which is likely unfamiliar.
Peppered throughout the timeline are other notable points in American history, such as the Mexican American War or the passing of the Missouri Compromise. These points on the timeline work to further orient the visitor in space and time so that they may fully contextualize the history of enslaved people in the White House within the history they already know—which for many, is largely devoid of the stories of enslaved people. Other historical moments that relate to slavery but are not directly connected to the White House pop-out to small blurbs with further explanation, such as with the Snow Riots of 1835.
The initiative also offers a virtual tour of the Decatur House Slave Quarters, which is home to the only known surviving slave quarters in sight of the White House.
Additionally, the initiative’s landing page features an index of the enslaved individuals connected to the White House that have been identified so far, as well as a list of additional resources and frequently asked questions. The Association also includes a link where descendants of enslaved individuals at the White House are able to reach out to the Association, as well as anyone with further information about this history or who may want more information themselves.
Along with the Slavery in the President’s Neighborhood initiative, the Association’s website offers a plethora of other digital resources that can be used in place of an in-person visit to the White House. The website features dozens of digital collections, offering articles, image galleries, and other resources about a wide range of topics in White House history.
A great collection to start with is called “Tour the White House.” This collection offers a digital tour of the Executive Mansion’s most iconic rooms through detailed articles and photo galleries—showing the White House past and present.
This collection serves as a terrific overview for those who are largely unfamiliar with the inside of the White House. It walks through the history of the different State Floor rooms, such as the iconic Red Room, and discusses the uses of each part of the house, such as the Second Floor versus the Ground Floor.
One recent collection is entitled “White House Women.” When most people think of women in the White House, they often default to the role of the First Lady, but women have had a profound effect on White House history from a variety of different walks of life.
While this collection certainly provides stories of the remarkable work first ladies have done since 1800, such as Lou Hoover’s extensive philanthropy, Patricia Nixon’s visitor-friendly White House, or Betty Ford’s activism, this collection also highlights women’s impact on White House history in ways many may not have considered.
Stories about the enslaved women in Andrew Jackson’s White House, Marian Anderson’s relationship with the Executive Mansion, and suffragists’ protests outside it, all work to create diverse and complex narratives around the history of the White House.
For those who may only know of the Association as the creator of the annual Official White House Christmas Ornament, its website also offers the collection “Holiday Cheer at the White House.” This collection deepens visitor understanding of first family life around the winter holidays—something most Americans can relate to. In this collection visitors can learn about the first lighting of the National Christmas Tree in 1923, the tradition of making gingerbread houses at the White House, or specific celebrations with different administrations.
Many of the digital collections on the Association’s website also link to relevant episodes of the organization’s free podcast The 1600 Sessions. This podcast explores the history, untold stories, and personal accounts of the White House. It opens the doors to the People’s House through conversations with historians and eyewitnesses to history, such as Lynda Johnson Robb, President Lyndon Johnson’s daughter, Roland Mesnier, a pastry chef at the White House to five different administrations, and many others.
These are just some of the digital history components the Association has to offer. While taking a tour through the digital assets on the Association’s website may never replace an in-person visit to the White House, the vast amount of rich content certainly helps fill the gaps for those who may never get that opportunity. Moreover, the content available at the click of a mouse is more than could fit into any brick-and-mortar museum exhibit. For students of history, hobbyists, tourists, educators, and the like, digital history provides a vast and easily accessible view into the past.
Visit the White House Historical Association’s website at whitehousehistory.org.
For daily White House history, follow the White House Historical Association on Twitter @WhiteHouseHstry, Facebook @WhiteHouseHistory, and Instagram @WhiteHouseHistory.
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Amanda is an emerging public historian with a passion for the digital humanities. She works at the White House Historical Association where she focuses on digital content management for the Association’s website, as well as assisting with marketing and press efforts. She received her Bachelor of Arts in History with a minor in Anthropology from American University in 2019. She will receive her Master of Arts in Public History from American University in 2020, with her interest being digital history. She believes that the application of digital tools to the practice of history are essential to making history accessible and engaging to varied and diverse audiences. Follow her on Twitter at @suitandtiemando.