Just as my enslaved ancestors could have never imagined an African American family residing in the White House, nor could my African American lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) brothers and sisters who fought in the Stonewall Riots of 1969 in New York’s Greenwich Village imagine that one day a special invitation from the White House would openly welcome us in.
This past December, the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC) — a civil rights organization dedicated to empowering LGBTQ people of the African Diaspora by eradicating the twin evils of racism and homophobia — received the White House invitation to its Holiday Open House Tours.
Within less than a week to recover from the “shock and awe” of the news, several of us flew from across the country to Washington. Under the leadership of Sharon J. Letterman, NBJC’s new Executive Director, who cleverly had a hand in NBJC receiving the invitation, on December 17th 25 of us arrived at the Southeast Gate at Alexander Hamilton Place and East Executive Avenue for our 6 p.m. tour.
Due to the recent White House State Dinner party crashers, Tareq and Michelle Salahi, security getting into the White House was so tight it operated like a beast on steroids. Brian K. Bond, Deputy Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement. sent out the following statement in terms of security:
“Each person in your tour will need to have a US Government issued photo ID. If an individual’s name and security information was not previously submitted for purposes of background check by the sponsoring organization, that individual will not be admitted at the gate due to security reasons.”
Once in the White House, tours were self-guided. However, the United States Secret Service officers were posted in every room, not only for security, but also to provide historical information about each room in the White House.
Luckily, NBJC’s had its own White House historian on our tour — Dr. Sylvia Rhue, Director of Religious Affairs at NBJC. Rhue became a self-made White House historian when she found out that her enslaved maternal great-great-grandmother was born in Blair House, the President’s official state guesthouse.
Francis Preston Blair, Sr., (1791- 1876) a prominent politician and editor of the Washington Globe in the 1800’s, had three sons: Montgomery, James, and Francis Jr. And Francis Preston Blair, Sr., is a great-great-grandfather of America’s film and stage actor of the 60s Montgomery Clift, who was bisexual and who might also be Rhue’s great-great cousin.
Montgomery Blair (1813-1883), Rhue’s family lineage, was a cabinet member of Abraham Lincoln’s administration during the Civil War, serving as Postmaster-General from 1861-1864. Rhue suspects that her great-great- grandmother was either Blair’s illegitimate child or a child born to a slave family working for the Blairs.
In an interview, Rhue said, “My great-great-grandmother may have been at some point Blair’s mistress. It’s not unusual, you know. But it’s amazing how so much of our history is now coming to light. Deborah’s great-great- grandfather was the first black Postmaster. His boss may have been Montgomery Blair. Small world.”
Rev. Deborah L. Johnson, a lesbian and founder and president of Inner Light Ministries, a transdenominational spiritual community of more than 1,500 people in Northern California, was also with the NBJC’s contingent on the tour.
For Rhue and Johnson, the Holiday Open House Tour allowed them to imagine what life must have been for their enslaved relatives working in and around the White House and Washington, D.C.
The White House was built between 1792 and 1800. And slave labor was an integral part of the construction of the White House, the U.S. Capitol building, and grounds. The White House Historical Association reports “Black quarrymen, sawyers, brick makers, and carpenters fashioned raw materials into the products used to erect the White House.” Five slaves — named Tom, Peter, Ben, Harry and Daniel — worked as carpenters during the building to the White House in 1795. And in 1863, a slave named Philip Reid supervised the construction of the Statue of Freedom that is hoisted atop the Capitol dome.
With the twin evils of racism and homophobia erasing LGBTQ African Americans’ historical contributions and connections to the physical building of the White and the moral building of our nation, Rhue’s and Johnson’s family history is a reminder that we, too, are unequivocally an integral part of this history.