Ex-Slave Visits With FDR at White House

Washington Post headline
Washington Post headline

Watching the Oscars and thinking of “12 Years a Slave,” we were wondering if and when a former slave visited the White House as a guest. I also suspect that this has happened more than once, so after digging in The Washington Post, we were able to uncover a great story about a former slave who visited with President Roosevelt.

Below is the article detailing the meeting between William A. Johnson and Franklin Roosevelt printed on February 18th, 1937.

Washington, Feb. 17–William Andrew Johnson, believed to be the only living former slave of a former President, called on President Roosevelt this morning at the White House. After a forty-five-minute talk the 79-year-old Negro, leaning on a new silver-headed cane the President had just given him, remarked:

“President Roosevelt’s my kind of white folks.”

Johnson was five years old when he was freed b y the Emancipation Proclamation, but he stayed on with President Andrew Johnson for another twelve years. He did not come to Washington with the former President, however, but always had wanted to see the Capital.

Last spring when Mr. Roosevelt went to Knoxville, Tenn., where Johnson is a chef, he had hopes of seeing the President and talking with him about Andrew Johnson. He was disappointed, however. Two weeks ago a reporter talked with the Negro and wrote a story about his recollections of Andrew Johnson and his disappointment at not seeing Mr. Roosevelt.

The President read the story and sent this memorandum to Stephen Early, White House secretary:

“What do you think about having William Andrew Johnson up?”

Mr. Early thought it was a good idea. Thereupon Mr. Roosevelt sent him another memorandum asking him to arrange the matter and saying “I will take care of the costs.” The President also notified Mr. Early that he wanted the visit to be arranged quietly, with no publicity.

Details of arranging the trip were intrusted to the Secret Service and, accordingly, Johnson arrived here this morning. There were four photographers and four reporters at the station to meet him. The news “leak,” it was officially maintained, occurred in Knoxville and not at the White House.

“They let me in,” he continued, “and the President had me to sit down. I got up, but he says, ‘Don’t get up now, you’ll wish you hadn’t before the day is over.'”

Johnson said he told Mr. Roosevelt “all about my white people.”

“I told him about when President Johnson died,” he continued. “I slept with him six days and six nights down in Tennessee after he had a stroke.”

Johnson died in Carter county, Tennessee, on July 31, 1875.

“I was only 18 or 19 when he died,” the Negro said, “but in them days, you know boys were just like men.”

The old Negro proudly displayed time-worn pictures of his old master and the latter’s family.

“I waited on them all,” he said, “and I told Mr. Roosevelt about all my white people.”

He said Mrs. Johnson–“the old missus”–taught him how to cook. “I’ve still got a whole lot of the recipes old missus used to have,” he added boastfully.

Asked whether he had been nervous when he visited the Chief Executive today, Johnson replied:

“No sir, not a bit,

“You don’t get nervous with a man like that. He’s just like Andrew Johnson.”

Because Andrew Johnson was Vice-President as well as president, the former slave was driven to the Capitol in a White House car to meet Vice-President Garner. After that the White House chauffeur took him to the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, Arlington Cemetery and Mount Vernon.

I wish I could find photographs from that meeting, but the article did have one grainy picture with it.

William Andrew Johnson
William Andrew Johnson

About Tom

Tom founded Ghosts of DC on January 4th, 2012 as a blog to uncover the lost and untold history of Washington, D.C. He has lived in the city for over a decade and loves exploring every corner of the District.

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