“The Invisibles: The Untold Story of African American Slaves in The White House”
Terri Schlichenmeyer | 2/29/2016, 9:53 a.m.
“The Invisibles: The Untold Story of African American Slaves in The White House” by
Jesse J. Holland
c.2016, Lyons Press $25.95 / higher in Canada 226 pages
by Terri Schlichenmeyer, OW contributor
If the walls could talk, imagine what they’d say.
They’d reminisce about family meals, holidays, celebrations and romance, take sides in
arguments, and watch children grow. If those walls could talk, they’d tell of triumph,
disappointment, beginnings, and endings. And, as in the new book, “The Invisibles” by
Jesse J. Holland, they’d talk of freedom and history.
When Barack Obama moved into the White House in 2009, he was, by far, not the first
black man to live there. From the beginning, as soon as America had a president, there
were slaves residing in the Executive Mansion; in fact, says Holland, “ten of the first
twelve presidents [were] slaveholders at some point in their lives.”
When George Washington fought in the Revolutionary War, his “favorite” slave, Billy
Lee, went with him so it was natural that Washington would bring Lee to New York, to
the first presidential mansion. Lee reportedly loved New York but when he suffered
physical disabilities, Washington summarily replaced him, sending him back to Mt.
Vernon where Lee was later one of a handful of slaves who comforted Washington as he
As a child, Oney Judge was brought up to learn sewing at Martha Washington’s knee.
Years later, Washington would say that she thought of Judge as a “surrogate daughter,”
but she was more than willing to give Judge away in order to keep her enslaved. Judge,
by the way, was one of a few slaves known to have escaped from a president.
Thomas Jefferson brazenly took a slave to France, where slavery was disallowed; the
slave, who was the brother of Jefferson’s “concubine,” Sally, did not try to escape. When
Dolley Madison fell on hard times after leaving the White House, her husband’s former
slave gave her money. Andrew Jackson kept slaves in the White House stables; they were
jockeys and Jackson loved racing ponies. James Monroe spoke out against slavery, even
as he owned slaves. Andrew Johnson possibly had a “’colored concubine.’” And just one
ex-slave of a president was “honored by a holder of that office.”
Please practice saying that word – “Wow!” – because you’ll need it even more when you
start reading “The Invisibles.”
In just under two-hundred pages, author Jesse J. Holland packs so many interesting
stories, so many jaw-dropping facts that, even though there were small errors and minor
repetition, I very much regretted this books’ shortness. Holland’s storytelling skills have
a way of making a reader hungry for more, and the tales he tells are surprising and even
Some of those tales – mixed in between those of the presidents’ slaves - precede the
White House, to look at slavery from the nation’s very beginning, even before there was
a president. That’s where we learn that an African immigrant was the owner of the first
Admittedly, die-hard historians might not find much new here, but I simply couldn’t put
this book down. If you want something that’s short on pages but long on interest, “The
Invisibles” is the one you’ll be talking about.