Spot of Parchment July 2019

Many people know Henry Clay for his long tenure in Congress and his controversial appointment as Secretary of State under John Quincy Adams. But do you know the name Charlotte Dupuy?

In 1825, the newly-appointed Secretary of State, Henry Clay, moved into the Decatur House. It was the perfect home for a Secretary of State as it was elegant and tailor-made to host large gatherings. Located on the corner of Lafayette Square, Decatur House also offered an enviably-short commute to the White House and executive buildings.
Image Courtesy of the White House Historical Association

Image Courtesy of the White House Historical Association

Clay brought with him his white family members and his enslaved laborers to work in the home. Charlotte Dupuy (or Lotty in some records) moved into the slave quarters at the rear of the building with her husband Aaron and two children, Mary and Charles.

In late 1828, Clay prepared to return to Kentucky after Adams had lost his bid for reelection. A long-time Jackson opponent, Clay knew he would receive no appointment in the new administration. Charlotte had other plans. On February 13, 1829, Charlotte filed a lawsuit for her freedom against Clay with the help of Robert Beale, a local attorney who seemed to specialize in freedom suits.

Charlotte claimed that her former owner had freed her mother and promised to free her once she reached adulthood. Charlotte reasoned that under Maryland law, her mother’s free status should be passed down to her. Instead, her former owner sold her to Clay, who refused to honor the promise. The court permitted Charlotte to stay in D.C. while the case was considered and she remained at Decatur House working for wages for the next resident, Martin Van Buren, for the next year and a half.

On May 26, 1830, the court ruled against Charlotte. She was thrown in an Alexandria jail while provisions could be made for her transport. Clay eventually sent Charlotte and her daughter to New Orleans to work for his daughter, while Aaron and their son remained in Kentucky. In 1840, Charlotte finally received her freedom.

There are a couple of things about this story that are remarkable and worth mentioning. First, there is so much about the enslaved and free African-American community in the nineteenth-century Washington, D.C. that we just don’t know. We have no records indicating that Charlotte could read or write, but she knew enough or at least knew the right people in Washington, D.C. to be connected with Robert Beale. The O Say Can You See Project is doing a remarkable job tracking individuals, cases, networks, and families to try and trace the progress of freedom suits and the impact on early Washington, D.C. You can also search by individual, which is how I learned that Beale played such an active role. His page can be found here. I tracked Beale in the City Directories and the 1850 and 1860 census and he served as a lawyer for many decades before becoming the Sergeant at Arms for the United States Senate. I wish I knew how Charlotte met him and what their communications were like, but I’m not sure there are any records to document their working relationship. I wish I knew more about this community and how they shared information. I know there are others far more knowledgeable about I am on this subject and I’m looking forward to learning more.

Second, it’s amazing to think about the connections to the White House that this story reveals. Henry Clay, the Secretary of the State, visited the White House regularly to consult with President John Quincy Adams. His successor and future president, Martin Van Buren, had an obvious connection with the White House. Charlotte lived with and worked for both, but tried to do so on her own terms. As she went about her work, ran errands, visited with friends and family through the city, and perhaps helped her employers with their work, Charlotte would have walked by and even into the White House regularly.

Image Courtesy of the White House Historical Association

Finally, this story is an important reminder about the centrality of slavery in American, Washington, D.C., and White House history. It was everywhere, pervasive, and powerful. It was supported by powerful men, ignored by others, and bolstered by the judicial system. At least for a while.

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