This weekend marks the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s first meeting with Frederick Douglass, an encounter summarized here and detailed in multiple published accounts by Douglass himself. While Douglass was probably the most famous African American visitor to the Lincoln White House, he was not the first to be received in an official capacity despite occasional claims to the contrary. While both slave and free black laborers had been employed at the White House since its construction, it likely took until the Civil War for the White House to receive its first black visitor on official business. If not Douglass then, who came first?
That distinction is sometimes associated with a small delegation of free black leaders from the District of Columbia who attended a widely publicized and somewhat notorious colonization speech by Lincoln a year earlier on August 14, 1862. While the event certainly consisted of an official reception of a black audience, it entailed less of a meeting than a lecture offered for the contemplation of its audience. That said, Lincoln also met with Joseph Jenkins Roberts – the Virginia-born former president of Liberia – the same morning for a somewhat related discussion.
A number of competing claimants arise for the first presidential conference or open discussion with an African American. Take for example Rev. Chauncey Leonard, a free African American Baptist minister who met privately with Lincoln for two unrecorded but documented conferences some months prior to the famous Douglass encounter. The first took place on November 1, 1862, when Leonard was introduced to Lincoln by an agent of the American Colonization Society. They returned on January 30, 1863 (recorded here in a previously unknown Lincoln document) for a second and presumably longer discussion. The subject of their two meetings was Leonard’s wish to undertake an investigative mission to Liberia and report on its conditions to prospective black settlers. Lincoln approved $200 for Leonard’s travels via the Colonization Society.
Another earlier candidate exists, though its details are – somewhat surprisingly – all but unknown to most historians. On April 17, 1862 Lincoln met in private with two emigration commissioners who had been appointed by the government of Liberia to recruit free black settlers and ascertain the U.S. government’s interest in financing their transit to the West African republic. Little is known today of the first commissioner, J.D. Johnson. The second however was an African-American abolitionist, Cambridge-educated clergyman, and Liberian missionary of distinction, Rev. Alexander Crummell.
Lincoln’s purpose in bringing the two men to the White House was to discuss the colonization provisions of the District of Columbia Emancipation Act, signed into law a day prior and providing $100,000 to voluntarily relocate the freed slaves of the District abroad. The meeting was held in private and would have received little notice at the time but for an erroneous newspaper report a few days later that charged Crummell with advocating the forced deportation of the U.S. black population – a position that neither he nor Lincoln held.
Johnson and Crummell accordingly wrote Lincoln, asking him to confirm that they had not favored compulsory colonization in their meeting. Lincoln responded on May 5, 1862 in a letter than has not survived in its handwritten original, but which was reprinted and disseminated at the time through the Boston Herald and the Massachusetts State Colonization Society. Johnson would also reference the meeting in a later letter to Lincoln that has survived.
Of course Lincoln also encountered many African American workers, servants, clerks, and valets during the course of his presidency. One of them, William H. Johnson, was likely an employee of the Lincoln family before his election and accompanied him from Springfield to Washington. But going by date, it would appear that the first black guests to be officially received at the White House on political business were not the colonization speech delegation of August 14, 1862, nor Douglass or Jenkins or Leonard, but the little-acknowledged visitors of April 17, 1862: Alexander Crummell and J.D. Johnson.