African American Presidential Cooks in Antebellum America

In light of Black History Month’s annual coinciding with Presidents Day, the following excerpt relevant to that reality is taken from The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, from the Washingtons to the Obamas by Adrian Miller.

“You know, the White House is really modeled after a plantation big house.” Chef Walter Scheib startled me when he said this during our first telephone conversation on 12 October 2010. It wasn’t because of concerns over the accuracy and clarity of his statement but because he said it to someone he really didn’t know. That’s just one of the reasons why, since his tragic death, I really miss the chance to delve more deeply with him into the complicated racial history of the presidential kitchen. Just like the white paint that is periodically applied to the White House exterior to cover up the scorch marks left when the British set the building afire in late August 1814, the retelling of White House history frequently masks the stain of slavery. This is maddening stuff given how deeply the legacy of slavery permeates the building, its grounds, and the entire city. Washington, D.C., was carved out of swampland from two slaving states (Maryland and Virginia), the land was donated by planters who were enriched by tobacco slave labor, slave labor was used to construct the building, and slaveholding presidents and enslaved people lived and worked there.

Before we focus on what happened within the White House’s walls, it helps to understand what antebellum black life was like in our nation’s capital during the nineteenth century. For most African Americans, it was miserable. Washington, D.C., was a slaving city, and the incidents and badges of slavery were omnipresent: enslaved people were sold at spots throughout the city, slave coffles moved regularly about the streets, slave pens dotted the cityscape, and enslaved people busily constructed many of the city’s buildings and much of its infrastructure and did a wide range of activities associated with forced servitude. D.C. operated under its own set of “Black Codes.” Such laws constrained the liberty of both enslaved and free African Americans. For example, the city’s 1808 Black Code enforced a 10 P.M. curfew on all African Americans that, if violated, was punishable by a fine. In the 1812 iteration of that particular code, enslaved people who violated the curfew were whipped with forty lashes. Free black people were also fined and could be jailed for up to six months if fines went unpaid. During this time, no black person could step on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol unless they had documented official business.

Black Codes were designed to preserve a racial social order and, at first, were slowly enacted after enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619. As the number of enslaved Africans dramatically increased in the eighteenth century, Black Codes proliferated in slaving states. The Black Codes, white racism, and white resistance to black progress combined with a cruel efficiency to constantly remind African Americans of their second-class status. In fact, it’s hard to imagine any social event in nineteenth-century Washington, D.C., that didn’t have an African American somehow involved in every aspect from start to finish. This included buying supplies at the market and preparing and serving the food and drinks. As one historian noted of the time period, “Nearly every distinguished family in Washington had colored servants, butlers and cooks and entertained lavishly. White servants and cooks came later.” Black hands—enslaved and free—wove the fabric of social life in the nation’s capital, and black people, widely considered by whites as inherently bred for servitude, were integral to cementing a white family’s social status as an elite household. Our presidential families were no exception, and this chapter delves into how slave labor powered the White House kitchen and nourished our presidents and, in one case, a future president. We’ll peer into the lives of people we can name (Hercules, James Hemings, and Mary Dines) and many whom white society didn’t feel obligated to identify by name in documented accounts of daily life at the White House.

Adrian Miller is a certified Kansas City Barbecue Society judge and recipient of a James Beard Foundation Book Award for Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American CuisineOne Plate at a Time. A consultant on Netflix’s Chef’s Table BBQ, Miller’s next UNC Press book is Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue (April 2021).