My family and I got a wonderful personal tour of the White House this past Friday.
Here’s why it was so great.
First of all, most people have never even been to the White House, let alone set foot inside of it.
Reservations are required, and to get one isn’t easy. You can make individual group requests through your local Member of Congress, be there on official business, or “know someone.”
The Johnsons visit the White House.
Knowing someone — a friend, relative, or other relation — means they could bring you in as their guest. That’s what happened with us.
We met our host at the Southeast Gate of the White House.
Previously — like many people — I hadn’t had the slightest bit of interest in touring the White House. My wife too — who attended Howard University in Washington, D.C. and once lived within walking distance — never bothered.
But all that is different now.
Our tour started in the East Wing. After going through security, which is like at an airport, we came in through the ground floor visitor’s entrance into the hallway that runs past the Vermeil Room, the Library (where the President delivers his weekly address), and the China Room.
Further down this hallway is a staircase that leads up to the First Family’s residential quarters — where the Obamas live. At this same spot is an access point, guarded by the Secret Service, that leads further down the hall into the West Wing, which is where the Oval Office is located.
The East Wing is sealed off from the West Wing at this point, and only certain people, with proper clearance and credentials, can enter.
As our host gestured for us to go up the stairs that lead in the direction of the East Room, the Green Room, the Blue Room, the Red Room, and the State Dining Room, I began to wonder if we would get to see the West Wing.
The attraction of the West Wing is that it’s where the President’s office is located, along with all the other cool stuff — for me that would be the basketball court on the South Lawn below the Rose Garden near the pool, as well as the tennis court that’s now re-purposed and re-painted for basketball. This is why people had kept asking us which entrance gate we were going to be using.
To rub it in, we were told that the President comes down those same stairs and goes into this same entry point every day en route from his residence over to the West Wing, and that we had just missed him — by 10 minutes.
One of my sons asked the Secret Service agent, “Is President Obama in there?” Yes, the Secret Service agent nodded.
My son, still by the agent, appeared momentarily stunned, and kind of stood there, with a perplexed look on his face that seemed to to ask the rest of us who were by now on the staircase, “Then, why are we going that way?”
But all of us — including him — realized that this was a very, very special opportunity that is not available to everyone. For one thing, it brought the kids full circle from that day last November when we all crowded into the voting booth to cast our vote, and from that cold day in January when we saw the Presidential Inauguration, ticket-less, from the corner of Louisiana and Constitution Avenues.
And we had been having so much fun every step of the way on this particular visit — getting ready for the trip, driving down to D.C., looking forward to re-connecting with our host, feeling nervousness and excitement at imagining what or who we might encounter by chance — that our positive momentum was on auto-pilot. So we just rolled with it.
Besides, I had one more thing up my sleeve.
Since the only personal items allowed through security are wallets, cell phones, and car keys — that is, no cameras, no purses, no pens, and so on — I had stashed a 4×6 photograph in my sport coat pocket. I had printed this and planned to give it to President Obama (or Mrs. Obama, Reggie Love, Robert Gibbs, anyone else, or any of their aides) in case we had the “much anticipated chance encounter”.
As the fascinating tour was coming to a close and we were headed towards the front door on the Pennsylvania Avenue side, I paused so that I could pull out this photo and give it our host.
Before showing what I had, I explained that it was a 1921 photograph of John H. Johnson, who in 1920 became the first African American to play varsity basketball for Columbia University.
President Obama, one must recall, graduated from Columbia College after transferring from Occidental College as an undergraduate.
One last thing about the pic, I told our host, is that it was not ‘doctored’ or altered in any way …
Then I handed over this:
John H. Johnson, Columbia University, 1921.
The uncanny nature of this photograph speaks for itself and, I hope, will take on a life of its own henceforth.
John H. Johnson was a product of the Black Fives Era. His father was the pastor of St. Cyprian Episcopal Church in Harlem, which sponsored one of the best amateur basketball teams in the city -– the St. Cyprian “Speedboys”.
Starting from an early age, Johnson advanced through the St. Cyprian’s athletic program, learned the game of basketball there, and then became a star at Columbia, joining the team for the 1919-20 season. He was a local hero.
After graduating from Columbia, Johnson went on the become a highly-respected and well-loved clergyman and community leader as the founder and rector of St. Martin’s Church in Harlem.
On the back of the photo I printed this:
John Howard Johnson, in a 1921 photo. In 1920 he became the first
African American to play varsity basketball at Columbia University, where he was a star forward.
Courtesy of Black Fives, Inc.
via the Lawrence Hogan Collection.
My friend Dr. Lawrence Hogan is the sports historian, author, and senior professor at Union County College (New Jersey) who recently re-introduced John H. Johnson’s historically important book Harlem From The Rectory Window (originally titled “Fact Not Fiction in Harlem”) in which this photo also appears.
Upon looking at John Johnson spinning a basketball in 1921, our host seemed to share the same surprise that I had felt when I first saw the photograph — and that everyone else has shown.
Is President Obama channeling John Johnson’s basketball talent? Or his clergy-style oratory? Or both?
This was a good time to ask, “Could you please get this photograph onto the desk in the Oval Office?”
“I’ll try,” said our most gracious host.
And with that, my mission — to make history now, right inside the White House — seemed complete.
But you can rest assured that I hope this particular story is far from over.