Slaves built the White House, say Obama and historians


PHILADELPHIA (AP) — First lady Michelle Obama declared at the Democratic National Convention that the White House she and President Barack Obama have lived in since 2009 was built by slaves.

Mrs. Obama is right, according to historians and authors who have studied the White House.

Slaves were used in the construction of the exterior and the interior of the White House when work began to on the edifice in 1792 and until it was opened in 1800.

“I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves,” Mrs. Obama said in her speech.

This isn’t the first time she said this: She said something similar during a commencement address at the City College of New York earlier this year, but that was not in front of a national audience at a political convention.

The White House Historical Association has acknowledged the use of slaves in construction of the White House, saying on its website the commissioners in charge of Washington, D.C., “turned to African Americans — enslaved and free — to provide the bulk of labor that built the White House, the United States Capitol and other early government buildings.”

Letters from the commission in charge of constructing the nation’s capital show that slaves were rented from nearby plantations in Maryland and Virginia to dig the foundation of the White House and quarry clay for the bricks used in the original.

A letter to Pierre L’Enfant from the commission ordered him to hire “good labouring negros by the year” to “throw up clay” at the construction sites of the Capitol and the president’s house. Slaves were also used in the quarries where clay for bricks was dug, with one newspaper advertisement looking for “sixty strong, active Negro men for whom good wages will be given — they shall be well used and fed.”

Slaves were used in clearing the land, quarrying the clay bricks, digging the foundation and laying the bricks for the White House, with commissioners advertising in local newspapers for additional help.

White House architect James Hoban also put slaves to work on the building’s interior. Hoban’s personal slaves joined Irish carpenters who worked inside the White House. Hoban’s slaves were put on the payroll as workers on the White House. Other slave owners who also worked at the White House rented out their slaves to use in the construction.

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Jesse J. Holland covers race and ethnicity for The Associated Press. He is also the author of “The Invisibles: The Untold Story of African American Slaves in the White House” and “Black Men Built The Capitol: Discovering African American History In and Around Washington, D.C.” Contact him at [email protected], on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jessejholland and on Twitter at @jessejholland.com

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