Last updated: January 13, 2022
Sukey, born around 1795, was enslaved to James and Dolley Madison for most of her life. Because of the strict laws that surrounded slavery in the years that Sukey grew up, it is likely that she never learned to read or write. Most of the information known about Sukey is through Dolley Madison’s personal writings and the memoir of Paul Jennings, another person enslaved to the Madisons.
During the War of 1812, while James Madison was president, Sukey was part of the enslaved staff at the White House. On August 24, 1814, when British forces were en route to capture the nation's captial, Sukey most likely helped save valuables from the executive mansion--such as clocks, silver, cabinet papers, and velvet curtains.
Mrs. Madison depended on Sukey for nearly everything despite suspicions that Sukey often stole from her. She even wrote to her sister, Anna Payne Cutts, that she tried to send Sukey away once but quickly realized that she "[found] it terribly inconvenient to do without her... so I must even let her steal from me, to keep from labour myself.”
Later in life, years after James Madison died, Mrs. Madison found herself financially burdened. She was forced to sell much of what Mr. Madison left her in his will, including enslaved persons.
In 1847, Mrs. Madison tried to sell the youngest of Sukey’s five children, Ellen (also sometimes called Helen). Ellen easily caught onto this and escaped from the buyer, as recorded in multiple newspapers, including Boston’s The Liberator. Although Ellen was eventually caught and imprisoned in Baltimore, Mrs. Madison – either angry about Ellen’s escape or significantly financially troubled – instead sold Sukey to a local Washington family.
Ellen was later freed by a group of abolitionists, including local Baltimore doctor, Dr. Joseph Evans Snodgrass, but there are little to no records of Sukey following her sale by Mrs. Madison. The only mention is that of her possible chance at liberty found in a Pennsylvania newspaper, The North American and United States Gazette, on May 23rd of 1848: “She is now, at the age of 50, working in the city of Washington, at the rate of $5 per month, to pay the price of one hundred and fifty dollars, demanded for her freedom.”
To read more about Sukey, her family, and other persons enslaved to the Madisons, please visit this article from the White House Historical Association.