The Curious History of the White House Easter Egg Roll

Thousands of families enter the lottery each year to take part in this White House tradition

This 1898 photograph shows a young black boy holding hands with a young white girl during the Easter egg roll. The contraption on her head is an Easter bonnet. Library of Congress

Egg rolls were a big part of Easter for many nineteenth-century families.

Played with hard-boiled eggs that have been decorated for Easter, players push their egg along down a hill, trying to be the first to reach the bottom. The best-known egg roll is probably the one held on the White House’s South Lawn each year.

The Easter Egg Roll is today the largest annual public event held at the White House. Its thousands of participants are chosen by lottery. In the 1870s, everyone wanted to participate.

Before they rolled eggs on the South Lawn, children from Washington rolled eggs down the steep slopes of Capitol Hill. According to newspaper articles, writes, the first public event happened in 1872. By 1876, “foot traffic from hordes of children and their families during an egg roll caused so much damage to the Congressional grounds that legislators were forced to pass the Turf Protection Law to prevent further damage.”

The law was to take effect in 1877, according to the Clinton White House. But that year, Easter Monday was marked by pouring rain, keeping children inside during the egg roll in any case. The next year—so the story goes—President Rutherford B. Hayes was accosted by a group of children who “inquired about the possibilities of egg rolling on the South Lawn of the White House.” As the White House Historical Association notes, private egg rolling events may have been held at the White House as far back as Lincoln's administration. But this was the moment White House egg rolling went public. Hayes, in the second year of his presidency, acceded to their demands, and the White House has hosted an egg-rolling event most years since.

The photograph at the top of this story, taken in 1898 by female photojournalist Frances Benjamin Johnston, is one of two images showing both black and white children participating in the egg roll during the late nineteenth century. 

“Black children were allowed to attend the White House’s annual Easter egg-rolling ceremony,” writes author Clarence Lusane in The Black History of the White House. “Permitting black children to integrate with white children on the White House premises one day a year was acceptable, even though such mingling was illegal in many places throughout the South at the time, including libraries and schools.”

According to Elizabeth Bumiller for The New York Times, even that small concession eventually faded, and by 1953, “Mamie Eisenhower asked why black children were looking through the gates at the white children rolling eggs inside.” She insisted that black children be included the following year, Bushmiller writes.

In the intervening years, black families also found another Easter egg rolling event that they felt welcome at: the National Zoo’s egg roll, which takes place on the Lion-Tiger Hill, writes Megan Gambino for Smithsonian.  Both the National Zoo's event and the White House's will take place this Easter Monday.

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