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Preserving Historic Slave Quarters in
Washington, DC

May 28, 2013

Last week, First Lady Michelle Obama joined American Express CEO Ken Chenault and representatives of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the White House Historical Association in announcing a $1 million grant from American Express to support the preservation and restoration of the Decatur House Slave Quarters, one of the few remaining examples of slave quarters in an urban setting.

This announcement came a few days after the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture announced that it is moving one of the nation's oldest slave cabins from Edisto Island in South Carolina to its new museum site on the National Mall in Washington, DC.

Mrs. Obama, a patron of the White House Historical Association, which manages Decatur House, attended the announcement to show her ongoing support for the preservation of historic buildings around our nation's capital, and the opportunities that historic buildings, like Decatur House, offer as educational facilities for future generations to understand our nation's history.

First Lady Michelle Obama and American Express CEO Ken Chenault with 6th grade students

Ken Chenault, Chairman and CEO of American Express, Neil Horstman, President of White House Historical Association and First Lady Michelle Obama tour Decatur House with sixth graders from Willow Springs elementary school.
(Credit: Rodney Bailey Photography)

During the event, Mrs. Obama said, "You all aren't just teaching our young people about history, you're inspiring them to believe that they can make history as well. And, that's really what history is for – it's for the next generation, it's for us to continue to learn and grow."

"Historic buildings, like Decatur House, help preserve our nation's history, said Ken Chenault. "We are very proud to join Mrs. Obama, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the White House Historical Association to ensure that it will help to educate, inspire and serve future generations."

Decatur House Decatur House
(Credit: Rodney Bailey Photography)
Built in 1818, the Decatur House was the first private residence in the White House neighborhood. Initially owned by Commodore Stephen Decatur, Jr., and his wife Susan, the house then went on to be occupied by private individuals as well as a variety of political figures, including secretaries of state, members of Congress, foreign and American dignitaries and a Vice President.

In 1956, the Decatur House was bequeathed to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which saved it from demolition, and in 2010, the National Trust and the White House Historical Association established the National Center for White House History at Decatur House.

The major emphasis of the American Express grant is the preservation of the Decatur House Slave Quarters as well as evaluation and conservation of two historically related extant domestic spaces in Decatur House: a first floor room in the northeast corner of the main house used as a kitchen, and an adjacent pantry. The history of domestic service at Decatur House and the use of the workspaces in the Slave Quarters in connection with the main house are integral to the rich cultural and social history of the property.

Likewise, the preservation of the 1850s antebellum slave cabin, considered one of two of the nation's oldest slave cabins, by the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, will add a significant historic artifact to the museum, which is scheduled to open in 2015.

"Slavery is the last great unmentionable in public discourse," said Lonnie Bunch, the museum's director, in a May 18 edition of the New York Times. "But this cabin gives an opportunity to come face to face with the reality of slavery. It humanizes slavery."

The exact age of the two-room, wood-sided cabin is unknown, but historians believe that it was probably built off-site and assembled at the Point of Pines Plantation on Edisto Island. Toni Carpenter, the founder of Lowcountry Africana, a group that documents black history in the South, was quoted by the Times as saying that an 1851 map of the plantation showed the cabin at its present site, and an 1854 plantation inventory showed that 75 people were enslaved there.

Preservation crews are currently dissembling the slave cabin and transporting it to a restoration facility in Virginia before it is rebuilt inside the new museum. While dissembling the cabin, crews discovered that newspapers had been stuffed inside the walls for insulation, and that windows and door frames were painted with a faint blue paint, which historians say slaves believed kept demons away.

The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, which has received a $5 million grant from American Express to aid in its construction, will be the first new museum to open on the National Mall since the National Museum of the American Indian in 2004. The 350,000-square-foot museum sits on a five acre site adjacent to the Washington Monument. Through exhibitions that will integrate new technology, the museum is a place where all aspects of the African American experience – history, culture and community – will form a lens through which the full American story can be told.

American Express, which has made more than $50 million in grants to preserve historic sites around the world, recently also announced $1 million in grants to historic places in the Washington, DC area through its Partners in Preservation program with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. (See my blog posting of May 13, 2013.)

If you have a question or comment, please share it here. Alternatively, follow me at Twitter at @tmcclimonCSRNow and comment there. Thanks for reading and sharing.


P.S. Did you know that American Express has supported a number of organizations connected to African American history, including the African Meeting House at the Museum of African American History in Boston, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati and the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina?


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