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The Strange Career of Jeremiah Smith: White House Worker Extraordinaire

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Abstract:

Perhaps the most iconic image of a nineteenth-century White House worker is the photograph of Jeremiah Smith taken by Frances Benjamin Johnston in 1889. Wearing a full-length white apron, white jacket, plaid necktie, and dark skull cap, Smith stands on the North Portico looking directly at the camera. The thumb of his left hand is tucked inside the apron; his right hand holds his signature feather duster at a jaunty 45-degree angle. His pose and his gaze—with just the hint of a smile—suggest a high degree of self-confidence, dignity, and authority.

Smith’s career trajectory was remarkable. Born a free black in Anne Arundel County, Maryland (where 71 percent of the black population in 1850 was enslaved), Smith served as a teamster in the Union Army and as a waiter in a Baltimore restaurant before being hired to work as a footman during Ulysses S. Grant’s administration in the late 1860s. By the time he retired some 35 years later, he had served as butler, cook, and doorman, and had become such a fixture at the White House that several members of President Grover Cleveland’s cabinet attended the celebration of his 25th wedding anniversary at his home in 1895. Moreover, when Smith became ill, President Theodore Roosevelt visited his home in Washington, D.C. When Smith passed away at age 69 in 1904, an obituary called him “the best gentility that democracy has produced.”

And yet, for many members of the press, Smith was also a caricature, known variously as “Possum Jerry,” “Uncle Jerry,” and a “faithful old servant” with “the manners of a Chesterfield.” When quoted in newspapers, Smith always spoke in highly exaggerated dialect. For example, in a story about White House ghosts, Smith describes his communications with the deceased President Grant: “I done shore ’nuff hear de gin’al’s voice. I done shore ’nuff hear it jes’ de same as ef it was in dis room, so strong an’ powerful.”

The case of Jeremiah Smith speaks directly to shifting concepts of citizenship and belonging in communities, institutions, and the United States at large. Smith’s own position as a Civil War veteran and servant who hosted presidents and Cabinet officials provides an eloquent example of the shifting status of full citizenship for African Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Moreover, Smith’s place in the White House—within the community of White House workers and White House residents—provides an excellent case study in belonging. In one sense, he clearly belonged at the White House, and exercised a certain amount of authority in his various roles. But in the minds of the White House correspondents who frequently used him in a disparaging way, Smith belonged to a subservient class, one whom they could make the butt of their prejudicial humor. Like the strange career of Jim Crow, the strange career of Jeremiah Smith reveals much about the cultural constructions, attitudes, and practices of the time.
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Name: American Studies Association Annual Meeting
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Deutsch, James. "The Strange Career of Jeremiah Smith: White House Worker Extraordinaire" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Renaissance Hotel, Washington D.C., <Not Available>. 2014-11-28 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p318057_index.html>

APA Citation:

Deutsch, J. "The Strange Career of Jeremiah Smith: White House Worker Extraordinaire" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Renaissance Hotel, Washington D.C. <Not Available>. 2014-11-28 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p318057_index.html

Publication Type: Internal Paper
Abstract: Perhaps the most iconic image of a nineteenth-century White House worker is the photograph of Jeremiah Smith taken by Frances Benjamin Johnston in 1889. Wearing a full-length white apron, white jacket, plaid necktie, and dark skull cap, Smith stands on the North Portico looking directly at the camera. The thumb of his left hand is tucked inside the apron; his right hand holds his signature feather duster at a jaunty 45-degree angle. His pose and his gaze—with just the hint of a smile—suggest a high degree of self-confidence, dignity, and authority.

Smith’s career trajectory was remarkable. Born a free black in Anne Arundel County, Maryland (where 71 percent of the black population in 1850 was enslaved), Smith served as a teamster in the Union Army and as a waiter in a Baltimore restaurant before being hired to work as a footman during Ulysses S. Grant’s administration in the late 1860s. By the time he retired some 35 years later, he had served as butler, cook, and doorman, and had become such a fixture at the White House that several members of President Grover Cleveland’s cabinet attended the celebration of his 25th wedding anniversary at his home in 1895. Moreover, when Smith became ill, President Theodore Roosevelt visited his home in Washington, D.C. When Smith passed away at age 69 in 1904, an obituary called him “the best gentility that democracy has produced.”

And yet, for many members of the press, Smith was also a caricature, known variously as “Possum Jerry,” “Uncle Jerry,” and a “faithful old servant” with “the manners of a Chesterfield.” When quoted in newspapers, Smith always spoke in highly exaggerated dialect. For example, in a story about White House ghosts, Smith describes his communications with the deceased President Grant: “I done shore ’nuff hear de gin’al’s voice. I done shore ’nuff hear it jes’ de same as ef it was in dis room, so strong an’ powerful.”

The case of Jeremiah Smith speaks directly to shifting concepts of citizenship and belonging in communities, institutions, and the United States at large. Smith’s own position as a Civil War veteran and servant who hosted presidents and Cabinet officials provides an eloquent example of the shifting status of full citizenship for African Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Moreover, Smith’s place in the White House—within the community of White House workers and White House residents—provides an excellent case study in belonging. In one sense, he clearly belonged at the White House, and exercised a certain amount of authority in his various roles. But in the minds of the White House correspondents who frequently used him in a disparaging way, Smith belonged to a subservient class, one whom they could make the butt of their prejudicial humor. Like the strange career of Jim Crow, the strange career of Jeremiah Smith reveals much about the cultural constructions, attitudes, and practices of the time.


Similar Titles:
Presidential Appointments to the Cabinet, Executive Office of the President, and the White House Staff: Shifting Patterns in an Era of White House Centralization

A Mirror on America: Portraits of White House Workers


 
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