In Our Lifetime
From toiling as White House slaves to President-elect Barack Obama, we have crossed the ultimate color line.
On that first transformative day, when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, Frederick Douglass, the greatest black orator in our history before Martin Luther King Jr., said that the day was not a day for speeches and "scarcely a day for prose." Rather, he noted, "it is a day for poetry and song, a new song." Over 3,000 people, black and white abolitionists together, waited for the news all day in Tremont Temple, a Baptist church a block from Boston Common. When a messenger burst in, after 11 p.m., and shouted, "It is coming! It is on the wires," the church went mad; Douglass recalled that "I never saw enthusiasm before. I never saw joy." And then he spontaneously led the crowd in singing "Blow Ye the Trumpet, Blow," John Brown's favorite hymn:
Blow ye the trumpet, blow!
The gladly solemn sound
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.
Visiting the White House is one thing; occupying the White House is quite another. And yet, African-American aspirations to the White House date back generations. The first black man put forward on a ticket as a political party's nominee for U.S. president was George Edwin Taylor, on the National Liberty Party ticket in 1904. Portions of his campaign document could have been written by Barack Obama:
"… in the light of the history of the past four years, with a Republican president in the executive chair, and both branches of Congress and a majority of the Supreme Court of the same political faith, we are confronted with the amazing fact that more than one-fifth of the race are actually disfranchised, robbed of all the rights, powers and benefits of true citizenship, we are forced to lay aside our prejudices, indeed, our personal wishes, and consult the higher demands of our manhood, the true interests of the country and our posterity, and act while we yet live, 'ere the time when it shall be too late. No other race of our strength would have quietly submitted to what we have during the past four years without a rebellion, a revolution, or an uprising."
The revolution that Taylor goes on to propose, he says, is one "not by physical force, but by the ballot," with the ultimate sign of the success being the election of the nation's first black president.