When the White House was also the Big House

by: Monica Smith Special to the AFRO
/ (Image courtesy of Jesse J. Holland) /
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Jesse Holland explores the lives of slaves in the White House in ‘The Invisibles. (Image Courtesy of Jesse J. Holland)

“Who would want to read about slaves in the White House?” a classmate asked Jesse J. Holland. The crushing feedback stifled the published author for weeks. Thankfully, Lyons Press thought otherwise and “The Invisibles: The Untold Story of African American Slaves in the White House” (Lyons Press, 2016) was born.

Holland, a native of Holly Springs, Mississippi, the home of legendary journalist and NAACP co-founder Ida B. Wells, writes about race, ethnicity and demographics for the Associated Press. Holland has also covered the White House, Congress, and Supreme Court. He resides in Bowie, Maryland with his wife and children.

Holland didn’t want the “great Black reporter” label, preferring “great reporter” instead. Yet he found himself drawn to Black anecdotes, they were “the stories that interested me the most,” the ones he had the most fun writing, he said during a Jan. 13 panel on Race and Writing at Goucher College in Baltimore, MD adding, “You do your best writing when you care about your subject.”

Clearly, Holland is passionate about Black history, writing the books he wants to read. After moving to the District in 2000, he searched for a narrative about the history of Blacks in the area that matched the oral snippets he had heard. Finding none, Holland wrote the book himself. He took two years off from the AP to complete “Black Men Built the Capitol: Discovering African-American History In and Around Washington, D.C.” (Globe Pequot, 2007).

While President Obama set his sights on the Oval Office, Holland conceived what later became “The Invisibles.” He aimed to explore three different eras of Black history in the White House.

The Invisibles “is only a first look,” Holland writes in the Foreword, “at the slaves who worked to build the White House, the slaves who lived inside the presidential mansions in New York City and Philadelphia at the dawn of the United States, and the first slaves to live inside the White House.”

The decor and tenor of the executive mansion, whatever its locale through history, was fashioned by the chief executive; Holland delves into the mindset and preferences of each president to frame the presidential slave narratives. An entire chapter devoted to the laws surrounding slavery and indentured servitude provides the context, along with the forced immigration history and examples of Native American assistance to slaves, which transports the reader back a century or more.

Oney Judge’s story illustrates Holland’s skilled use of first person accounts to detail her quest for freedom, including the ad President Washington’s steward placed following Judge’s escape. After she was found, a reply sent to Washington read, “She should rather suffer death than return to slavery and (be) liable to be sold or given to any other persons.”

“And there was no [president] more involved with his slaves than Thomas Jefferson,” Holland writes. But readers looking for details about Sally Hemings may be disappointed, as history does not place her in the White House; Holland’s reference is for her brother James.

Readers travel alongside James Hemings while Jefferson was Ambassador to France; relive Paul Jennings’ account of the White House evacuation before the British burned it in 1814; and view Simon’s jaw-dropping races as a jockey Andrew Jackson simultaneously reviled and coveted.

“The Invisibles” is rich with vibrant, suspense-filled anecdotes which document the presidential slaves’ roles in American history and, as Holland hoped, honor their sufferings and sacrifices. The book also highlights the importance of recording and preserving Black life stories before they are permanently lost to history.

See Jesse J. Holland at Bus Boys & Poets (14th & V)-Jan 27, 6:30-8:30 p.m. and Barnes & Noble (Bowie Town Center)-Feb 13, 1-4 p.m. FMI, visit jessejholland.com

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