‘A breaking down of a color line in the White House’: Book explores Lincoln’s connection to the Black community during Civil War

In spring 1864, President Abraham Lincoln invited a guest to one of his private rooms in the White House — the room he often napped and read his Bible in.

His visitor was Caroline Johnson, a Black woman from Philadelphia who was known for making intricate wax fruit. While the nation was embroiled in the Civil War, the pair sat and discussed the fruit Johnson had gifted Lincoln and his wife.

“It shows in a very practical way, a breaking down of a color line in the White House that had been very strong before the war, and unfortunately, would return after the war,” said Jonathan W. White, an American studies professor at Christopher Newport University. “For this period of time, there’s an egalitarianism there that was unusual in the 19th century.”

Johnson was among a slew of Black people invited to the White House between 1862 and 1865, making a bridge with members of the Black community for a short but notable time.

White’s book, “A House Built by Slaves: African American Visitors to the Lincoln White House,” uses letters, speeches and newspapers to explore the relationship Lincoln had with African Americans during the Civil War. It was released Feb. 12, Lincoln’s birthday.

Lincoln routinely met with formerly enslaved people and those born free. His guests included Norfolk natives, such as Joseph Jenkins Roberts, who would become the president of Liberia, and Alexander T. Augusta, who was born free and became the highest-ranking African American officer in the Union Army during the war. Lincoln also invited people from other parts of the U.S. and Canada, including Robert Smalls and Anderson R. Abbott.

White’s book was birthed when he was doing research for another. In 2014, he began collecting letters that Black people had written to Lincoln personally and some that had been published in newspapers. He found about 125, including petitions with dozens of signatures.

White had too much material, though, so he published some of the letters last fall in the book “To Address You as My Friend: African Americans’ Letters to Abraham Lincoln.” He has written and edited 13 books, five of which are about Lincoln and his policies.

The documents are from newspapers and national archives such as the Library of Congress, White said. He hopes to help readers understand Lincoln�����s views, his victories and his shortcomings.

For example, in August 1862, Lincoln wanted to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which would free enslaved people in the Confederate states and areas not under Union control. But the president needed a major war victory so that the proclamation wouldn’t look like a sign of weakness. Lincoln needed support and met with five Black leaders, lecturing them on why Blacks should leave the country if freed.

Colonization was a popular idea, the belief that Black people would have to relocate because the races couldn’t live together in freedom, White said. Lincoln had even met with Roberts, the Norfolk native, that year and Roberts encouraged Lincoln to send former slaves to Liberia, which had been established for them.

But Lincoln had a transcriptionist at the meeting with the five men, and he wanted his comments published in newspapers. White said white Northerners would think, “If Emancipation comes, we don’t have to be as concerned about it because the president is supporting colonization.”

The meeting is often used to depict Lincoln as racist, White said, even though Lincoln thought colonization should be voluntary.

“He never advocated for forced deportation,” White said.

Later, Lincoln’s interactions with the Black community evolved. He issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863. He met with abolitionist and writer Frederick Douglass on several occasions. Douglass was initially critical of Lincoln but changed his mind after meeting him. Douglass often gave speeches and included stories about how kindly Lincoln treated him, describing it as one gentleman receiving another.

He considered Lincoln a friend and someone he respected.

In the spring of 1864, at least three delegations of Black people met with Lincoln to ask for his support with voting rights for Black men, including two men from Louisiana who gave him a petition signed by 1,000 people.

“In both of these cases, Lincoln showed sympathy towards their request,” White said.

The president told them he didn’t have the power to give the right to vote; he asked the Louisiana men to show how giving Black men the right to vote would help win the war, White said.

“These two men went away and they thought and a few days later, they wrote out a new petition,” he said. “In this one, they said, the white population of the South is overwhelmingly disloyal and the Black population of the South is overwhelmingly loyal to the Union. If you want to secure the peace after the war is over, the best way to do that is to give Black men the right to vote.”

Shortly after, Lincoln wrote a private letter to Louisiana Gov. Michael Hahn asking him to consider letting Black men vote, White said.

When the president invited Black people to the White House, he shook their hands and treated them kindly, White said. He listened, and policy changes came from the meetings, including voting rights for Black men. Lincoln also met abolitionist Sojourner Truth in October 1864. He showed her a Bible he received from Black people in Baltimore a month earlier. The two sat and examined it.

“I felt I was in the presence of a friend,” she said afterward.

Lincoln also mentioned limited voting rights for Black men in a speech at the White House on April 11, 1865, arguing that Black men who were educated or served in the Army deserve the right to vote.

“In the audience that night was John Wilkes Booth. Booth heard that and he said ‘That means n-word citizenship,’” White said.

That would be Lincoln’s last speech. Booth shot the president three days later.

“I think African Americans read about these meetings in the newspapers and they felt for the first time that they had a president who was actually concerned with their welfare,” White said. “Prior to the Civil War, Black people were more likely to be bought and sold as slaves by a sitting president than to be welcomed at the White House as a guest. That changes dramatically between 1862 and 1865 and they recognize that.”

Because of this, White suspects Black people across the nation felt a greater sense of loss at Lincoln’s death than most white people did.

White’s most recent book and the letters printed in them allow modern readers to better understand what Black people were going through, he said. At the time, Lincoln was getting between 200 and 300 letters a day.

“They’ve tried every option they can think of and the last resort is ‘I’m going to turn to the president of the United States and see if he can help me,’” White said. “In some of the cases, Lincoln is able to help.”

Some of the letter writers were illiterate and got other people to write them, but it’s interesting hearing their voices this way, White said.

“When you try to find voices from African Americans in the Civil War era, they’re often mediated through white people,” White said. “When you read these letters, you get Black voices in a way that is very uncommon.”

Saleen Martin, 757-446-2027, saleen.martin@pilotonline.com


Jonathan White has lectures and discussions surrounding his work scheduled throughout April. Go to tinyurl.com/JWLincolnEvents for more information.