The First Ladies and the Doorman

Jeremiah Smith, long time White House employee.

Jerry Smith spent 35 years as a White House factotum, in a variety of positions.

The Scant Basics About Jerry

Jeremiah Smith was a free Negro, born in Anne Arundel County, MD in 1835. Very little is known of him, except that he grew into an imposing figure of manhood, with  the manners of a courtier.

During the Civil War, he served as a teamster in the Union Army, where perhaps he made the acquaintance of General Grant.

That is about as scant as we know.

Then he obtained a position in the Grant White House.

Col. William H. Crook had come into White House service toward the end of the Lincoln Administration, in the capacity of a Secret Service agent. Then, it was simply a personal bodyguard. Crook, who wrote his memoirs of nearly 50 years of service in the Presidential Mansion, gives a fine account of Jerry Smith, or “Uncle” Jerry, as he was sometimes called.

Colonel Crook Said….

Long time White House aide Col. William H. Crook

“[He was] one of the best known employees in the [WH], who began his career as Grant’s footman, and remained in the WH ever since, and still was one of the most magnificent specimens of manhood the colored race has produced. In addition to his splendid appearance, he had the manner of a courtier, and a strong personality that could not be overlooked by anyone, high or low.”

Manners and presence notwithstanding, Jerry was somewhat of a self-created caricature of a Negro servant. This is in no way demeaning, since it gained him a huge audience of admiring dignitaries as well as a huge assortment of fellow White House servants at all levels. He could turn it on and turn it off at will, making the most of all impressions.

Incredibly superstitious, according to Crook, Jerry believed in ghosts the same way a five-year-old believes in Santa Claus – and no one could tell him any different. Since the WH has always been home to benevolent ghosts, Jerry Smith had a varied assortment of stories about the origin of the creaks and groans he heard, and happy to share them with all who would listen.

“…he was always seeing or hearing the ghosts of former deceased Presidents hovering around in out-of-the-way corners, especially in deep shadows at sundown, or later.” He also believed they had a right to haunt their former surrounding and never questioned that right, “being perfectly willing to let them do whatever they wished so long as they let him alone.”

But it is his relationships with some of the Presidential Families that add to his interest…

Jerry Smith and FLOTUS Julia Grant

First Lady Julia Grant

Smith was first engaged as a White House footman, and accompanied Mrs. Grant on her rounds of “calls,” a popular tradition in Washington for several decades. Dressed in his finest navy blue livery with silver trim, it was his responsibility to help the First Lady from the carriage and escort her to the door of whichever home she was visiting. If the lady was “at home,” he would wait until Mrs. Grant was ready to leave (about fifteen minutes), and then escort her back to the carriage. If the lady was not “at home,” Jerry would take Mrs. G’s calling card from a silver case, and leave it with whoever answered the door.

Julia Grant was a genuinely nice lady, and took a somewhat maternal interest in all the servants. When the Grants were in the White House, Washington real estate prices were low, and some “affordable housing” was available for the newly freed Negroes. Julia strongly urged all her Negro servants to purchase these houses as insurance for their old age: they would always have a place to live.

Jerry Smith was slow to respond to Mrs. Grant’s urging, and she became worried about the footman she had grown to like. She is said to have scolded him, adding that if he did not make arrangements to purchase a house immediately, she would buy one for him, and withhold some of his monthly wages to pay for it.

Jerry bought the house.

Jerry Smith and FLOTUS Cleveland

First Lady Frances Cleveland

There is a well-known story about young Frances Cleveland, about to depart the White House following Grover Cleveland’s first term on March 4,  1889. She is said to have told Jerry Smith, now the doorman, to be sure to keep everything just the same for when we come back. When queried about when they planned to come back, she replied “four years from today.” She was right.  The Clevelands again returned to the White House on March 4, 1893.

Toward the end of that term, Jerry Smith and his wife celebrated their 25th (Silver) Aniversary. Jerry completed his doorman duties, including lowering the flag, and quietly disappeared. Then members of the staff remembered it was Jerry’s special day.

According to Crook, “And to that home, that evening, wended a procession of dignitaries such as never before had graced its precincts. Everyone who came to the White House during Jerry’s service there of nearly a quarter of a century, knew the old man, and thoroughly liked him. So great was the general regard, that not merely clerks and assistant secretaries went to his silver wedding, but one carriage after another drove up to his door, containing Cabinet Officers and members of the Diplomatic Corps, sending in to him and his wife some personal gift appropriate to the occasion.”  A pile of silver dollars were left on his table. Jerry was in his glory: being the envy of all his neighbors.

“Official Duster” Jerry Smith, photographed in 1889 by Frances G. Johnston

Jerry Smith and the POTUS

President Theodore Roosevelt

When Jerry Smith retired in 1904 due to infirmity, Theodore Roosevelt was President. Jerry had been made “Official Duster” at the White House some years earlier. It was less physically stressful.

As a mark of personal respect and affection for the aging White House “fixture,” shortly before Jerry’s death, TR personally went to his home and sat with him for a while. It was same little house that Julia Grant had insisted that he purchase.

Sources:

Crook, Col. W.H. – Memories of the White House: The Home Life of our Presidents from Lincoln to Rooevelt – Little Brown, 1911

https://www.whitehousehistory.org/press-room-old/white-house-ghost-stories

http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p_mla_apa_research_citation/3/1/8/0/5/p318057_index.html

 

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About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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