On Monday night, when First Lady Michelle Obama made a stirring speech at the Democratic National Convention, she touched on how she felt living in the White House, which was built by slaves, as a Black woman raising her two daughters.
For many African-Americans, this was a highlight of her speech. But for others, they felt uncomfortable with the First Lady bringing up that tidbit of information and even claimed it was false.
Because we now live in a time where everything needs to be fact-checked, including well-known historical facts, there’s proof slaves did construct the White House as well as other landmarks in the nation’s capital.
According to Smithsonianmag.com, Congress put together a task force in 2005 to find out who built Washington D.C.’s government buildings. After conducting months of research, they announced even though they would never be able to tell the full story of the slaves who built those landmarks, there was no doubt slaves were heavily involved in the construction.
In a foreword to the report, Senate Historian Richard Baker and Chief of the House of Representatives Office of History and Preservation Kenneth Kato, wrote, “Indifference by by earlier historians, poor record keeping, and the silence of the voiceless classes have impeded our ability in the twenty-first century to understand fully the contributions and privations of those who toiled over the seven decades from the first cornerstone laying to the day of emancipation in the District of Columbia.”
These findings should be of no surprise seeing as how Washington, D.C. was built on land ceded to the federal government by Virginia and Maryland. During this time, the Potomac region was full of almost half of the country’s 750, 000 slaves.
The White House Historical Association says the original plan was for D.C. commissioners to bring cheap workers from Europe to build the capital’s landmarks, but recruiting fell through. Instead, slaves were forced to provide the labor and workers were rented from their masters for long periods of time.
Alexander Lane of Politifact, wrote of the slave labor, “Slaves were likely involved in all aspects of construction, including carpentry, masonry, carting, rafting, plastering, glazing and painting, the task force reported. And slaves appear to have shouldered alone the grueling work of sawing logs and stones.”
Slaves also worked the quarries where the stones for the government buildings came from. The Statue of Freedom which sits on top of the Capitol Dome was made with the assistance of Philip Reid, an enslaved man who belonged to sculptor Thomas Crawford, who was in charge of building the statue.
The Architect of the Capitol reports the federal government paid Reid was paid $1.25 a day for his contributions.
People may not want to admit it, but slaves built this country-for free. The First Family living in a home built by slaves holds much symbolism and FLOTUS was well within her right to include it in her speech as the Democratic National Convention.
Photo Credit: SmithsonianMag.com