FLOTUS and Did Slaves Build the White House?


FOX News, surrogate pundits, numerous “news” sources in cyberland, talk radio, and social media memes are challenging Michelle Obama’s statements that she lives in a house built by slaves.

I say look at the actual primary sources to formulate an opinion instead of just listening to people with little if any actual knowledge of US History, the legislative process, but who are experts in selling themselves out as mouthpieces to spread propaganda and fear so that others will follow along on leashes like the ones to which they are attached but without the benefit of being first to the food bowl.

If the First Lady intended to suggest or to convey that the President’s residence which later became known as the White House was the product of 100 percent slave labor, then Michelle Obama is wrong.  Given that like her husband she has stated often that nobody is an island entire of himself or herself (Yes, I admit that I apply John Donne and his Meditations to a lot), I do not interpret her as implying “only” slaves because as critics point out nobody, not your parents, teachers, mentors, or anyone from prior generations ever did a blessed thing to help, because individuals today build things and create things all by themselves so of course prior generations lacked that ability regardless of skin color or creed.

Aggravation and unnecessary dig on my part aside, Michelle Obama is certainly aware that James Hoban who won a competition of architectural designs for the President’s residence was Irish born and emigrated to the United States. He was not a slave.

Who built the structure?  A heck of a lot of people provided the physical labor.  These included workers imported from Europe of whom many remained in the United States and would likely be considered as illegals today for remaining past the completion of their modern day Visa.  It also included locals as laborers and skilled craftsman.  These locals would include free people of color along with others of white skin with more ethnic lineages than your Grandma could shake a stick at.

Finding specifics as to whom and numbers is difficult.  Many records have been lost.  That includes records of the original construction and the rebuild following the burning.

This little 2005 pamphlet prepared by William C. Allen, Architectural Historian of the Office of the Architect of the Capitol, touches upon many of the record issues.  Richard Baker, Historian, US Senate, and Kenneth Kato, Chief, Office of History and Preservation, US House of Representatives, in their foreword to this work began:

“No one will ever know how many slaves helped to build the United States Capitol Building- or the White House; or the homes of founding fathers George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison; or Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. Indifference by earlier historians, poor record keeping, and the silence of 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.”

On page 4, Allen notes:

“It is not possible to examine the documents at the National Archives relating to the Capitol’s early construction without being impressed by the sheer number of references to “Negro Hire” (see the appendix). These vouchers record payments to owners for time their slaves spent working on the Capitol, the President’s House, and elsewhere in the emerging city of Washington. Today it may seem negligent on the part of early historians of the Capitol that they failed to include the story of slave labor in their accounts. Surely they were aware of the fact; however, their failure to incorporate slaves in their Capitol histories should be seen as a typical disinterest in the working classes in general. In years past, the labor of everyday workmen of all races and ethnicities was not considered a subject worthy of scholarly notice.”

One document example is this James Hoban slave payroll in the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

Yes, some of those individuals disqualifying Michelle Obama’s statement with assertions that the slaves were paid are correct.  What they fail to mention is that the US government did not own these slaves and thus wages were paid to the individual who owned the slave.  Remember that a slave was “property” and thus not a human being although in terms of population for representation and taxation a slave did count as 60 percent or 3/5 a person.

If one does not have the time, training, ability, or desire to delve into records at NARA or to at least skim a 27 page or so pamphlet with citations, then a 29 December 2000 press release headlined “National Archives to Display Pay Stubs of Slaves Used to Build U.S. Capitol and White House” will provide a summation about documentation at NARA that were displayed in the Rotunda of the National Archives Building back in 2001.

My opinion is that if one does not add words or assumptions such as “exclusively” to what Michelle Obama said, then her statement is true.  Taken within the prior context of the “you didn’t build that” criticisms of President Obama and the current derision of “Black Lives Matter” by arguing that all lives matter gives more credibility to Michelle Obama’s statement than the statements by critics trying to debunk slaves built the White House.

You see “Black Lives Matter” does not mean that my life does not matter.  I’ve never even been told or heard from anyone supporting the BLM movement that my life as a white boy born and reared in the Florida Parishes of Louisiana and presently residing in Maryland does not matter.  In both a personal and professional opinion, I regard BLM as Black Lives Matter “also, or as well, or just like the lives of anyone else.”  Personally de jure and de facto segregation in the mainstream predate my birth.  My Mom and Dad lived when that segregation was visible clearly.  In many ways things have gotten better, but they never will be perfect.  What on this Earth can be perfect?

Some individuals, however, still experience first-hand what I just typed predates my birth.  Some is visible for all to see and some is kept under the cover of the shadows.  Implicit and explicit are different, but the effects can be equally devastating.  Opinions and perceptions are not isolated from one’s environment, firsthand experiences, or if passed generationally from a family history.  Denying or skewing that history is not the answer.  One problem we all face today is acceptance.  The reason that is a problem for us all is that failures or inabilities to accept hinder communication which impedes making progress.

Even if I am not present, I know that more than likely a tree falling out in the woods made a sound.  If anyone, regardless of if I knew them or not, looked like them or not, believed like them or not, I hope that they heard the sound and managed to not be injured by that tree falling.  It doesn’t even matter why the tree fell, that can wait to assist the injured or to try and prevent others from getting injured.

I would hope they would feel the same about me if they were not near enough to hear the sound, but even if they do not a step toward understanding is acknowledging that a tree has fallen.

Slaves were a part of the labor force to build what we today call the White House.  To have an opportunity to build that White House resulted from the blood, sweat, and tears shed freely and forced to flow from so many others before in the founding of this country, from those who helped create the opportunities to found this country, and from those who………before.