Last week, at the Democratic National Convention, nominating a former First Lady as its candidate for the presidency, as usual, our First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, again, spoke the truth.
This time, she spoke the truth in her remarks that slave labor was used in building the White House, her home for the past seven and a half years.
She said, quote, “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.”
Surely, this part of her convention speech was meant to illustrate some of the changes in the status of African-Americans over the years.
Instead, many people were offended. Still, others refused to believe what she had said.
Between 1790 and 1800, the presidential White House in Washington, D.C., was built by African-American Slaves. The federal government rented slaves from plantations in Virginia, Maryland and in the District of Columbia.
Some 385 different slave owners rented slaves to the United States government to do White House construction. Of course, the freed, mathematician Benjamin Banneker, who did indeed help survey the territory of Washington, was not expected to do physical labor.
Black people were the sources of the human energy and muscle which converted paper drawings to real buildings. African-American slaves sawed the lumber. Great amounts of marble had to be located, quarried, and carried some 40 miles from Stafford, Virginia to Washington, DC and cut, sanded, refined and attached to brick walls and foundations. Slaves made the thousands upon thousands of nails and bricks used in this mammoth project.
James Hoban, the actual architect of the White House charged the government for the services of his own personal slaves that were used in building the White House. The scores of contractors usually submitted multiple bills to the Commission, including slave rental, equipment rental and supervision fees. Records of many of these transactions still exist at the National Archives of the Library of Congress.
Following Mrs. Obama’s speech, one prominent commentator attempted to minimize the impact of her comments by saying that these enslaved workers at least were, quote, “well fed.” Some were, some were not.
Slaves in the quarries lived in make shift huts; those in the city might have lived in slightly better huts and cabins.
Most of the skills that black workers brought to the City of Washington were developed on the plantations where they did the construction work, be it the slave-owner’s house, or the plantations barns and support buildings, or the construction and maintenance of equipment. In short, they did the physical work that their owners avoided.
Even before the dozens of slave stone cutters, brick masons, carpenters, plasterers, roofers, and other tradesmen, finished their work, the White House was called
“The Temple of Liberty.” It was intended to be the largest and finest home in North America. The completed building was originally referred to as the Presidential Palace or Presidential Mansion.
John Adams became the first president to take residence in the building on November 1, 1800. By 1811, the first evidence of the public calling it the “White House” emerged, because of its white-painted stone exterior.
In 1814, during the War of 1812, much of Washington, D.C. was burned down by British troops and the White House was gutted, leaving only the exterior walls standing. Many of the same slave renting contractors were involved in its reconstruction.
Whether owned or rented these enslaved African-Americans had no civil rights nor civic voices in the society for which they labored. This would be changed by a Civil War North and South of the White House and the United States Capitol.
The true “Temple of Liberty” to civil and human rights are still under construction by those of us in America.
Our First Lady reminded us that history and truth matters. Let us face them both together!
Alvin Ponder, M.D., is a doctor, educator, anti-AIDS activist and serves on Bronx Community Board #10. He resides in Co-op City, Bronx and is running for the New York State Senate, District 36, on a campaign platform: Improving Community Health and Quality of Life.
[Editor’s Note: Many people were disturbed by her 2016 Democratic National Convention speech, when Michelle Obama asserted that the White House had been built using slave labor. The website that denies or confirms facts and rumors online, Snopes states; she was in fact correct in her assessment. While the White House was not exclusively built by slaves, other low-level laborers toiled on the project as well. But yes she was correct, the White House was built by slaves]
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