In Our Lifetime

From toiling as White House slaves to President-elect Barack Obama, we have crossed the ultimate color line.

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Let all the nations know,

To earth's remotest bound:

The year of jubilee is come!

The year of jubilee is come!

Return, ye ransomed sinners, home.

At that moment, an entire race, one that in 1863 in the United States comprised 4.4 million souls, became a unified people, breathing with one heart, speaking with one voice, united in mind and spirit, all their aspirations concentrated into a laser beam of almost blind hope and desperate anticipation.

It is astounding to think that many of us today—myself included—can remember when it was a huge deal for a black man or woman to enter the White House through the front door, and not through the servants' entrance. Paul Cuffe, the wealthy sea captain, shipping merchant, and the earliest "Back to Africa" black colonist, will forever have the distinction of being the first black person to be invited to the White House for an audience with the president. Cuffe saw President James Madison at the White House on May 2, 1812, at precisely 11 a.m. and asked the president's intervention in recovering his famous brig Traveller, which had been impounded because officials said he had violated the embargo with Britain. Cuffe, after the Quaker fashion, called Madison "James"; "James," in turn, got Paul's brig back for him, probably because Cuffe and Madison both favored the emigration of freed slaves back to Africa. (Three years later, on Dec. 10, 1815, Cuffe used this ship to carry 38 black people from the United States to Sierra Leone.)

From Frederick Douglass, who visited Lincoln three times during his presidency (and every president thereafter until his death in 1895), to Soujourner Truth and Booker T. Washington, each prominent black visitor to the White House caused people to celebrate another "victory for the race." Blacks became frequent visitors to Franklin Roosevelt's White House; FDR even had a "Kitchen Cabinet" through which blacks could communicate the needs of their people. Because of the civil rights movement, Lyndon Johnson had a slew of black visitors, as well. During Bill Clinton's presidency, I attended a White House reception with so many black political, academic and community leaders that it occurred to me that there hadn't been as many black people in the Executive Mansion perhaps since slavery. Everyone laughed at the joke, because they knew, painfully, that it was true.