The African-Americans in the White House kitchen
Feb 14, 2017
By Michael Floreak
February 14, 2017
This story was originally published in The Boston Globe.
Adrian Miller gained a rare insider’s view into the workings of the presidency as a special assistant to President Clinton. But it wasn’t until he left Washington that he became fascinated with another aspect of the White House — its kitchen. More specifically, the African-Americans who have worked intimately with first families since the country’s founding as stewards, chefs, and cooks.
"These were celebrated culinary artists who had a very important role," says Miller, who lives in Denver and is executive director of the Colorado Council of Churches. The James Beard award-winning writer explores that role in a new book, "The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, From the Washingtons to the Obamas." He particularly wanted to highlight how their personal relationships with presidents provided the leaders with a window on black lives they might not otherwise have had. During African-American History Month, and with Presidents’ Day Feb. 20, the time is ripe to explore that history, much of it previously untold.
Q. Has the White House kitchen historically been staffed by African-Americans?
A. It changes over time. In the earliest decades of the White House, typically the steward and maybe even the head chef would be white. They were typically foreign nationals because some of our early presidents had a love affair with French cooking. But the secondary kitchen staff would be primarily African-American. For instance, in Washington’s kitchen you had a biracial man who was steward, Samuel Fraunces. He had a white woman who was cooking for him, but they weren’t feeling her cooking. Then Washington brings in Hercules, who was his enslaved chef from Mount Vernon, to help cook. It was pretty much predominantly black staff until you get to Jacqueline Kennedy, who wants European cooking done by trained European chefs.
Q. What was it like to work in the White House kitchen?
A. One of the ongoing observations from people who work in the kitchen is the low pay. Even back in Calvin Coolidge’s time you have staff complaining about the low pay. It’s not so much that the staff feels they’re serving a particular first family; they feel like they’re guardians of a tradition. So there’s definitely the prestige factor. Then, for the people who were enslaved, they had no choice in the matter. They wanted their freedom.
Q. How did they end up at the White House?
A. Typically, the president would bring their enslaved people to cook because they liked their food and because it saved them money. What a lot of people don’t know is that prior to President Truman, the president often paid for entertaining out of his own pocket. You save a lot of money if you don’t have to pay someone a prevailing wage. The other part is wealthy families would loan their slaves to the White House to just help out to ingratiate themselves to the president. Jefferson, Washington all knew that slavery was not popular in many parts of the country. They actually did quite a bit to hide their slaves from the public just so they wouldn’t get a lot of scrutiny. The last known person to have enslaved people working for him in the presidency was Zachary Taylor.
Q. After emancipation, what was the path to working at the White House?
A. It pretty much depended on who you knew. A lot of the African-American White House cooks have been accidental. People have to understand that the thinking of the 19th century especially and early 20th century was that African-Americans were born for servitude. So these service positions were one of the few jobs where African-Americans could earn a living, excel at the profession, and not get white backlash.
Q. Did close relationships develop between the staff and first families?
A. I think the best example was a woman named Zephyr Wright. She was the private cook for Lyndon Johnson. Of all the fascinating characters in the book, she was the one I wish I had just an hour to talk to.
Q. Why is that?
A. You hear about LBJ being an overbearing person. She gave it right back. There was a story about LBJ with Senator William Fulbright of Arkansas, who was one of LBJ’s sharpest critics during the Vietnam War era. Fulbright was at some White House function and LBJ made a beeline to him and said, "You said I have an arrogance of power. Let me show you a note my cook gave me." So he pulls out a quote from Zephyr Wright that tells the president that he should not complain, that he doesn’t take care of himself, and "You’re gonna eat whatever I put in front of you."
Q. Did the influence of kitchen staff members extend into policy?
A. When LBJ was lobbying for the 1964 Civil Rights Act he would use the Jim Crow experiences of Zephyr Wright to press his point. The family would drive from Texas to Washington, D.C., and while they were driving through the South, Zephyr Wright would not be able to eat with them and could not use the restroom in the same place. It got to the point where she refused to go on those trips. So President Johnson would use these anecdotes to say that the cook for the president of the United States has to go through this. That’s why we need this law. As the story goes, after he signed the act, he presented one of the pens to Zephyr Wright and said, "You deserve this as much as anyone."