Lee’s post about the White House chef got me thinking about the White House service staff — specifically African American employees. We know that slaves helped to build the executive mansion during the Washington and Adams administrations, and various presidents, including Jefferson, Madison, Jackson and Polk, brought slaves to the White House.
This AP article briefly documents the difficult evolution from slaves to servants to service staff to West Wing staffers. The following story kinda stood out…
Eleanor Roosevelt, a staunch civil rights advocate, mandated that only African Americans be hired to the service staff. John Pye, a White House valet, purchased the very first war bond from President Roosevelt — in person — for $18.75. Decades later, Pye had a rather unpleasant experience with President Nixon…
…who came to him and asked about some leftover food.Nixon said: “Boy, what are y’all going to do with the rest of the food,” Lowe said. “Mr. Pye did not like being called ‘boy’ and he didn’t like to be questioned about how the kitchen would deal with leftovers.”Pye told him that the food went to charity, but it turned out Nixon wanted to eat the leftovers.”Pye made sure they went to charitable organizations that day,” Lowe said.
I can’t imagine why Nixon was hated so much.The following photograph is very likely the first ever taken of the White House service staff. Circa May, 1877. The Hayes administration.
Standing: Jane Humphreys, Henry Harris, Beverly Lemas, Mary Monroe, Edgar R. Beckley, Telemachus Ford. Seated: Maria Rustin, Mary Waters, Winnie Monroe
There’s a symmetry to how the broader American story also plays out in miniature at the White House. The wounds and scars of the United States exist inside the walls of that mansion, and in ten days, it will encompass and reflect one of America’s greatest triumphs.Adding… There’s a little known 1979 miniseries called Backstairs at the White House starring Leslie Uggums and Louis Gossett, Jr. which follows the lives of the African American service staff through eight administrations. Amazon link below: