When presidents and slaves mingled at the White House





Sometime around the middle of April 1804, a slave named John Freeman wrote a letter to the president of the United States. Freeman, technically owned by a Maryland doctor, William Baker, had been contracted to work for Thomas Jefferson, who engaged him to serve in the White House and accompany Jefferson on trips to Monticello.

Now, Freeman was writing because he wanted the president to buy him outright....

The letter was one among numerous acts of resourcefulness and initiative that would result, years later, in John Freeman's being purchased and owned by not one U.S. president, but two. He would marry his beloved Melinda; gain his freedom; and, not least, purchase a piece of property on K Street in Northwest Washington, between 18th and 19th streets. There Freeman would establish a home for her and their children, taking his place among a unique, now largely forgotten community of free black residents with ties to U.S. presidents such as Jefferson, James Madison and George Washington....

"Wouldn't you like to have had a piece of property on K Street?" says Beth Taylor, an independent scholar and former director of education at Montpelier, the historic home of James Madison. While researching Madison slaves, Taylor has become fascinated by this area, once home to what she calls Washington's "first families of color." Their life stories testify to the bonds between freed blacks in antebellum Washington, and remind us that a number of early American presidents did indeed own other human beings....


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