Yes, slaves helped build the White House

Just one question for the nation’s history teachers: What exactly are you teaching as history these days?

The question comes up because when Michele Obama uttered this paragraph last night….

“I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves. And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women, playing with their dogs on the White House lawn. And because of Hillary Clinton, my daughters and all our sons and daughters now take for granted that a woman can be president of the United States. So, don’t let anyone ever tell you that this country isn’t great, that somehow we need to make it great again, because this right now is the greatest country on Earth.”

… it sent people scurrying to find out if it’s true that the White House was built by slaves.

PolitiFact went to the White House Historical Association — before that website crashed — and confirmed — again — that though it was not exclusively built by slaves, slaves helped build it.

It reads in part: “Construction on the president’s house began in 1792 in Washington, D.C., a new capital situated in a sparsely settled region far from a major population center. The decision to place the capital on land ceded by two slave states — Virginia and Maryland — ultimately influenced the acquisition of laborers to construct its public buildings.

“The D.C. commissioners, charged by Congress with building the new city under the direction of the president, initially planned to import workers from Europe to meet their labor needs. However, response to recruitment was dismal and soon they turned to African American(s) — enslaved and free — to provide the bulk of labor that built the White House, the United States Capitol, and other early government buildings.”

A stonemason, Collen Williamson, “trained enslaved people on the spot at the government’s quarry at Aquia, Va.,” the group wrote. “Enslaved people quarried and cut the rough stone that was later dressed and laid by Scottish masons to erect the walls of the president’s house. The slaves joined a workforce that included local white laborers and artisans from Maryland and Virginia, as well as immigrants from Ireland, Scotland, and other European nations.”

You’d think that would have come up sometime in history class.

  • Mike Worcester

    Guess I had good history teachers in h.s. and college. They did not shy away from topics like this.

  • Jerry

    Instead of teaching American History, many schools prefer to teach American Mythology.

    • “When I found out there were eight presidents before George Washington, I wanted to smack somebody. I wanted to know why I was taught otherwise.” — Prince

      • matt

        continental congress wasnt considered the same.

    • lindblomeagles

      You’re entirely correct – American History, in popular culture, is just as mythical as Thor and the Gods were to Scandinavians. Sadly, a lot of that mythology stems from the fact Europeans, in general, thought the colored people of the world, wherever they were from, were inferior, and that notion persisted well into the Twentieth Century, traveling with them as they conquered nation after nation, after nation, abating largely once Europe, battered by centuries of war culminating in World War II, had to turn to the United States for severe economic help. Literally poor, Europe began freeing its colonial possessions across the world from 1945 – 1980, to concentrate on rebuilding themselves. Some places still haven’t been rebuilt (Italy was a major power in World War Ii – today, they still aren’t a major power). This country, too, wasn’t willing to give up the superiority – inferiority complex until changes in technology, mainly TV cameras (much like cell phone videos today) captured the horrors of the Civil Rights Movement (and later Vietnam). It’s been a traditional source of entertainment (seen all those Cowboy Westerns?), turning American History into myth, that is difficult for many to let go of.

  • jon

    So it was built by slaves in 1792, but what about the rebuild after it burned down in the war of 1812?

    I would presume slave labor was used then as well since slavery wasn’t outlawed in the US until 1860’s with the emancipation proclamation, and 13th amendment.

    (I liked history when I was in school, though the sacking of DC is barely mentioned in school history classes, we much prefer to talk about the battle of New Orleans, which happened after the war ended…)

    • Jack Ungerleider

      Its been a long (very long) time since I was in a high school History class but, The Battle of New Orleans is usually taught to explain the rise of Andrew Jackson. It serves history well in this convention season that the GOP is no more the party of Lincoln as the Democrats are the party of Jackson.

      This page has some interesting prints by the artist Andy Thomas. I had seen the Poker prints, the Pool prints were new to me when I found the page. They include Jackson as part of the picture.

      • lindblomeagles

        You’re so right Jack, I laughed, approvingly. Lincoln’s Republican Party were so liberal that they created mass transit (railroads all across America), opened up a lot of schools (particularly land-grant colleges and universities), freed slaves, and, by the 20th century, sided with unions, breaking up trusts and monopolies, and pushing legislation for the 8 hour work days, child labor laws, and safer working conditions. Heck, they even expanded the National Parks System and introduced rules to make and sell food. Aside from the 1920s, they didn’t really start becoming disciples of Andrew Jackson until Richard Nixon was elected, and a lot of that was due to Southern anger (Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act of 64 and 65), and winning just two elections from 1932 – 1968, the Ike years, and he, too, passed liberal legislation.

  • DavidG

    If they didn’t learn it in school, they should have learned it from watching HBO’s “John Adams” mini-series.

  • Leann Olsen

    Maybe one of the problems is what I encountered in high school. We questioned teachers about why the Holocaust wasn’t being covered in our studies of WWII and they claimed “you know about it already.” They were short on time and had to pick and choose with what they could cover. I was absolutely appalled when I learned about the Japanese Internment at age 20. No one ever covered that and probably for the same reason. Yes some teach mythology or half truths. (Anyone see that horrible textbook issue in Texas that’s in danger of being approved by a stupid school board? They are attempting to re-write Mexican American history in a fictitious and shameful manner.) I bet a lot of students had experiences like I did where teachers were/are constricted by NCLB or whatever else and just run our of time to cover it all. As usual it’s probably a larger issue of the educational system and priorities of schools.

    • lindblomeagles

      You’ve raised a fair question. Let me start by just saying American History is very complicated. The lower 48 states are here because of a race between European nations to find the fastest route to Asia. Traveling east was a huge problem because the Middle East didn’t allow easy (or cheap) overland passage, and sailing around Africa round trip took at least a year, and was prone to collisions with coasts and storms. Everybody traveled west in search of an easier route to Asia – Dutch, Swedes, French, Spanish, Portuguese, English – everybody that had a country and international trade. Once people of British ancestry were able to establish governments here, they started competing with one another. Were it not for King George’s meddling, the United States may not have formed. Even as they were agreeing to work together in 1790, they still had to remove “Indians” from the land to make a profit, and employ Africans to develop the land to increase production time and yield. The plantation was America’s first TRUE factory. That’s what’s so damning about slavery. It’s not just the brutal treatment whites delivered to Africans — it was the billions (maybe trillions) of dollars made from slave labor, enriching both white individuals and the US economy, that was never given to Africans for their labor. Not one penny. Not freedom. A slave literally made his master a huge chunk of change, only to die penniless, blistered, and depressed from years of difficult work without payment or respect. That’s what we really don’t discuss when it comes to slavery – the money! It’s the dirty little secret that never sees the light of day. As for Hawaii, it was acquired to enrich Dole Foods, and Alaska was purchased from Russia, without the consent OR knowledge of the Inuit living there (the second Lousiana Purchase in American History). Very complicated history.

  • fromthesidelines21

    Slave labor helped build our country, the fact that it was also used to build the the White House and Capitol is a fitting reminder of slavery’s terrible and important role in our history. We’ve come a long way as so well said by Mrs. Obama.

  • Postal Customer

    So slaves built the White House but not the pyramids. I can’t keep this straight.

    • Khatti

      Well the pyramids were built under the supervision of master builders who were, in fact, not slaves. A lot of the grunt work was done by conscripts who are also–technically–not slaves.

      • lindblomeagles

        Quite right Khatti. I think Dave, in retrospect, was confusing the Jewish story with the African Slave story. At some point, referenced in the Bible, the Jewish people were enslaved by Egypt. What they did while enslaved is under debate. But Moses, with God’s help, persuaded the pharaoh to free the Jews (King James Bible), whereby, the Jews then migrated east to present day Israel (again, King James Bible version of history). If you have more information, please share. My ancient civ is not nearly as good as my American History.

    • Rob

      I can’t keep this sh%t straight, either

    • lindblomeagles

      Lafayette Park, which is across the street from the White House, hosted slave auctions where Africans were sold to slaves. Slaves leaving theirs masters during the Civil War were settled in Arlington National Cemetery. The Cemetery, at that time, was a plantation complete with slave quarters that you can tour if, and when, you visit Washington D.C. To teach the slaves skills and trades, Howard University was established shortly after the Civil War concluded.

  • alhunt

    bit of a stretch the only part of the white house that is original is the 4 outer walls everything was replace in the 49-52 reconstruction, she actually wakes up in a house built by john mcshain, who did a lot of famous construction works in D.C in the 40’s 50′ and 60’s

    • Kassie

      Since you are insisting on being picky, John McShain was a contractor, not a laborer. He did not build it, his employees did.

      • alhunt

        so you admit Employees not slaves. thanx

        • Kassie

          Yes, I admit there were no slaves in 1949 in the US. I also stand by that when the White House was first constructed there were slaves and their labor was used to build the White House and parts of their work still stand.

          • LiberalismFailed

            If a Menards employee drops off a pallet of shingles at a building site, or some lumber, I think it would be a stretch to say that Menards built the building.

          • Jerry

            The Point

            Your head

          • Just keep dancin’…

    • Jerry

      What, exactly, is your point?

      • frightwig

        He’s confused being pedantic with cleverness.

  • Jeff

    Yep, interesting part of history, so glad we fixed those problems with 13th-15th amendments as well as the civil rights acts.

  • Always fascinating to watch white people and their rhetorical gymnastics when it comes to the issue of slavery. We own it, white people.

    • Khatti

      Really? How far back in history do you want to go?

  • Dan

    I listened to that part of Michelle Obama’s speech this morning on MPR, and thought the crowd reaction was awkward — the waves of applause seemed oddly timed.

    “…I wake up in a house built by slaves…” –pause for loud applause
    “…my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women” — scattered cheers
    “…playing with their dog on the White House lawn” –applause builds and gets louder

    I’m sure the crowd wasn’t *trying* to say that they really like slave labor, kind of appreciate intelligent black young women, but not as much as dogs. I think the crowd was excitable and in a weird mood what with the Bernie or bust people, the DNC email hack, etc.

    Just sounded funny.

    • joetron2030

      I understood they were applauding because of the symbolism of an African-American family, descendants of slaves, being the primary residents of the White House but I, too, found the applause at that moment awkward.

      • Laurie

        After watching it live and then later on tape and then listening to it, I think it’s all more about Obama’s timing and the huge size of that arena, than anything else. Her sentences were often full of images and emotions and provocative thoughts, and although she was speaking, she was also reading, and she didn’t pause as much as some might have for all of the complexity in her text to settle in.

  • Gary Doan

    As the Democrats fought for slavery, not against it at the time. You don’t need fact check, the facts are too obvious and ready available, in old history books.

    • Jerry

      Yes, that Democratic Party fought for slavery, limited government, and states rights. This is not that Democratic Party.

    • rallysocks

      Please, please, please do us all (including yourself) a favor and read some actual history.

  • Khatti

    Yup, slaves helped build the White House–they also fought each other to the death in the Roman Coliseum.

  • LiberalismFailed

    I hate to quibble, but the people that built these structures were actually the stonemasons. Labor simply brought the stones in and put them in rough hewn form so that the master masons could shape them into the buildings we see today.

    • Rob

      so in regard to the fact that slaves helped build the white house by hauling materials to the site for the stone masons to utilize, what’s your point?

      • LiberalismFailed

        The First Lady claimed slaves built these buildings. Maybe it’s semantics but I think your use of the term helped to build is closer to the truth and wouldn’t minimize the efforts of those Mason’s that did the real skilled labor.

        • lindblomeagles

          Real resentful. I honestly feel sorry for you. All that fear and bitterness has the best of you.

  • Jerry

    There’s a lot of “well, actually” guys in this thread. Don’t be that guy.

    • Khatti

      You would prefer I beat myself with a flail until I pass out?

  • lindblomeagles

    A couple of commenters, notably Liberalism Failed, appear to be hurt, embarrassed, or maybe resentful, about the role of slaver and slave in American History, so much so that they’ve gone to incredible lengths to nitpick which group of Americans were responsible for building the White House. When the US Constitution was written, African slaves were counted for purposes of reapportionment as 3/5s of a white person. That was 1790. While the Constitution did not specifically forbid an African American to run for elected office, America didn’t elect the first Black Governor until Virginia did it in 1989, about 200 years AFTER the US Constitution was written. Almost twenty years later, 2008, Barack Obama is elected America’s First Black President. Is it really important to write the names of each and every slave that built the White House, or to acknowledge each and every white person who drew up the plans for the White House? I say no because what Michelle Obama did Monday Night was take a time to reflect how far this nation has come, when it seemed often enough, that we would never get there. Some women would argue the country STILL might not elect a woman President. Ella Grasso ran for Governor of Connecticut in 1975, winning one term. She did not replace her husband as three women before her had done. 41 years later, America still hasn’t elected a woman President of the United States. Our history is complicated, but it is our history. We cannot simply whisk away the past simply because it is uncomfortable to us. While we’ve made progress, the will of the Founders of the United States of America, was strive to do more. Fretting about who built the White House isn’t doing more. Electing a woman, a Jewish person, a GLBT person, a Native American, a person who stands for unity; that’s doing more. Anybody can debate the uncomfortable. A real go-getter, however, acknowledges there’s more we can do.

  • PaulJ

    And those, White house building, slaves were probably luckier than most slaves. This whole country was built on the backs of oppressed people. From my (limited) understanding, sugar and cotton slaves had it the worst. Isn’t our currant American privilege due in large part to oppressed people doing our manufacturing?

    • Rob

      yes, and “oppressed” is putting it nicely.