In August 1862, Abraham Lincoln invited a delegation of five black Washingtonians to the White House. At that infamous gathering, the President lectured his guests about why African Americans should leave the country through a process called colonization. Few moments in Lincoln’s presidency seem as regrettable as this one. On the one hand, it is remarkable that for the first time in US history, an incumbent president invited a group of black men to the White House for a discussion. On the other hand, Lincoln’s words that day were terribly condescending; He blamed the presence of African Americans in the country as the cause of the civil war. William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper, the Liberator, noted the intricate nature of the moment, calling it “a spectacle as humbling as it is extraordinary”.
Lincoln’s harshest modern critics have pointed to this meeting as evidence of his racism. But this interpretation misses an important political context. Lincoln used the meeting to prepare the white northern electorate for an Emancipation Proclamation he was about to release. More importantly, this meeting was unlike any during the Lincoln presidency. In every other instance that Lincoln met with African Americans—enslaved or free—he treated them with the utmost dignity and respect. As Frederick Douglass so proudly said, Lincoln received him at the White House “as you have seen a gentleman receive a gentleman!”
Between 1862 and 1865, Lincoln opened the White House to African Americans in a way previously unthinkable. Black men and women entered the Executive Mansion for public receptions and private meetings. Some joined Abraham and Mary Lincoln for tea. Others bravely demanded equality and political rights. Some came at the President’s invitation. Others walked through the gates of the White House uninvited and unannounced. Some offered their services to the Union Army. Others urged Lincoln to ensure that US troops of color received the same treatment. Some brought gifts for the President. Others walked away with food or money they desperately needed.
A remarkable drama was unfolding in wartime Washington. Blacks claimed Lincoln as their president, and they entered the White House claiming it as their home as well. As the son of a White House waiter later recalled, “There was no color line.”
Some of Lincoln’s visitors were famous. Frederick Douglass had two private interviews with Lincoln. But Lincoln also welcomed ordinary blacks whose names have been completely lost in history. One such North Carolina visitor, astounded to be greeted through the front door of the White House, exulted, “He didn’t tell us to go out the back door, but like a true gentleman and noble-hearted boss, with so.” much courtesy and respect, as if we were the Japanese Embassy, he invited us to the White House.”
Lincoln’s friendly treatment of black visitors became widely known in Washington circles. Union Sister Mary Livermore remarked, “To the lowly, the humble, the timid colored man or woman, he bowed in peculiar kindness.”
For three years, the President has extended his hand to African-American visitors at a time when few whites were willing to shake hands with blacks. Many were touched by this gesture. In 1864, Douglass proudly told a friend: “He treated me like a man; he didn’t let me feel for a moment that there was a difference in the color of our skin! The President is a most remarkable man.” Sojourner Truth had a similar experience. After meeting Lincoln in October 1864, she remarked, “I felt like I was in the presence of a friend.”
Lincoln knew there could be high political costs in welcoming black visitors to his home and office, but he did it anyway. Newspapers across the North reported his meetings with African Americans, and many expressed outrage at the warm welcome he gave them. A Pennsylvania newspaper scoffed: “When have we ever had a President who made as much of the Negro, or was ever willing to welcome him into his private and social circles as Abraham Lincoln does?” Mr. Lincoln is clearly the president of the blacks and the bane of the whites.”
Though he probably never saw that editorial, Frederick Douglass would also use the phrase, but to a different effect. Shortly after Lincoln’s assassination, Douglass told a New York audience that Lincoln was “emphatically the president of blacks: the first to show respect for their rights as men.” Speaking to African American men and women, Douglass continued, Lincoln spoke “without anything resembling condescension [sic]and without in any way reminding him of the unpopularity of his color.” In this way, Douglass concluded, Lincoln was “the first American president to rise above the prejudices of his time and country.”
Jonathan W. White is Professor of American Studies at Christopher Newport University and the author of A House Built By Slaves: African American Visitors to the Lincoln White House (2022) and To Address You As My Friend: African Americans’ Letters to Abraham Lincoln” (2021). Follow him on Twitter @CivilWarJon.