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Opinion

Early African-American workers in DC were more than silent witnesses

To understand America’s past-to-present we would do well to recognize and know more about those African-Americans edited out of the nation’s narratives – from my great-grandfather E.A. Savoy to Eugene Allen, the White House butler fictionalized in the film 'Lee Daniels' The Butler.'

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When he finally retired in 1933, he held one of the highest government positions possible for an African-American at the time, chief messenger to the secretary of State. Less than a year after his death in 1943, a Liberty ship would be launched in his honor, the SS Edward A. Savoy.

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Barely five feet tall, known for his tact, charm, and wit, Savoy was considered an anomaly. On meeting him for the first time, according to a newspaper account from the day, one congressman confided, “I thought he was at least the Ambassador from Dahomey, and was quite taken back when he volunteered to take my card to the Secretary.”

Often chosen as the subject of human-interest stories, Savoy appeared no less than six times in Time magazine, which liked to record “Savoy-isms”: “When I meet a man who is domineering to his inferiors, I know he is sycophantic to his superiors, and no gentleman.” Or, on the language of successful diplomacy, “Never say what you want to say, and never say anything before you think twice.” The New York Times gave his obituary a full column and photo.

Yet he never received the status, respect, or salary of the skilled diplomat he was. To government officials and the media he was “Eddie,” the “colored” messenger or “diminutive Negro,” rarely Edward, certainly not Edward Augustine. The boundary defined by ideas of “race” stood firm, cutting his story, and that of his family, which grew out of the paradox of Washington, D.C.

African-Americans served the federal government since the capital was deliberately carved out of tobacco plantations and ports where slavery thrived. In 1790, Maryland and Virginia held more than half the nation’s nearly 700,000 souls in bondage.

Enslaved and free men cleared sites for the imagined capital. They fashioned building materials, then built the city, including much of the Capitol and the President’s House (later called the White House). Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, John Tyler, James Polk, and Zachary Taylor staffed the White House with enslaved servants.

The number of free inhabitants of color grew with the city. Many of them, like Edward Augustine Savoy’s family, were employed by the government from day one.

To think of them as silent, behind-the scenes witnesses is to consider the past through a narrow frame. These people served, guarded, and in some cases literally crafted the stages upon which history was made. They experienced the tensions between democratic ideals and the daily workings of a segregated capital. And they defined their own lives of political and civic engagement.

To understand America’s past-to-present we would do well to recognize and know more about those edited out of the nation’s narratives – from the capital’s early builders to Edward Augustine Savoy to Eugene Allen, the White House butler.

Lauret E. Savoy is a professor of environmental studies and geology at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass. She is the great granddaughter of Edward Augustine Savoy.

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