A new fellowship to explore White House’s history of slavery

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 in understanding the role that slavery played in subsequent racism, the development of American political culture and how we think of ourselves as Americans.”

“Our job is to tell that specific story related to the White House as it fits into the larger American story,” she said.

The White House Historical Association’s project was inspired in part by a speech then-first lady Michelle Obama gave at the 2016 Democratic National Convention where she said, “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.” That statement surprised many Americans unfamiliar with the role enslaved people played at the White House. Even today there is no plaque or memorial in the White House acknowledging its slavery history.

Following her year with the White House Historical Association, Owens will spend time researching the effect the legacy of slavery has had at American University and its influence on the school’s founding, said Christine Platt, managing director for AU’s Antiracist Research & Policy Center.

“We had a number of wonderful candidates, but Mia’s interests and her work at the intersections of race and history were very powerful,” Platt said. “Those of us that have worked in this space for years, the thing we talk about is the importance of knowing the history and … getting people to make the connection between history and our modern-day circumstances.”

M.J. Rymsza-Pawlowska, director of the graduate program in public history and Owens’s academic adviser, said there is still a great deal of work to be done researching the history of slavery and how it continues to affect a modern-day America.

“When you see this kind of work happening at different universities, at different institutions, that’s really stemming from a massive sea change in attitudes and understanding,” Rymsza-Pawlowska said. “The protests from the summer have helped to illuminate some of these issues and also draw a clear line to the history of slavery.”

As she sets out to begin her research, Owens says she is contemplating many questions about her role as a historian.

“What can I do to better educate myself about the history of slavery and racial injustice? What can I do to help share underrepresented narratives and experiences? What can I do to engage other people in these conversations?” she said in an email. “I think it is important to acknowledge the complexities within history, and I think that this can be done, in part, by researching and sharing these perspectives that have been overlooked.”

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