The White House and slavery
“I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.”
— First Lady Michelle Obama at the Democratic National Convention in August 2016.
Last month during the Republican National Convention on the White House lawn, President Trump, turning from the microphone and teleprompters to face the edifice looming behind him, spread his arms wide and admired his “house,” his “home.” Unlike former First Lady Obama, Trump did not muse about slaves who constructed and lived in that magnificent structure.
In a couple minutes of online searching, I found the website www.whitehousehistory.org, which is maintained by the White House Historical Association, where there is this introduction: “Many people think of the White House as a symbol of democracy, but it also embodies America’s complicated past and the paradoxical relationship between slavery and freedom in the nation’s capital.”
The website has an alphabetical list of 204 slaves: “Enslaved People Building the White House and Capitol Building (1792-1800).” First on the list is “Abraham (hired out by James H. Blake)” and last on the list “William (hired out by Elizabeth Thomas).” Not one of the slaves has a last name. What was important for record-keeping was the name of the owner to whom the federal government paid for the slave’s labor.
The website also has lists of slaves who worked in presidential households. Following is just the number of slaves serving presidents George Washington through Zachary Taylor, plus term in office:
• George Washington, 10 slaves
• Thomas Jefferson,11 slaves
• James Madison, 6 slaves
• James Monroe, 13 slaves
• John Quincy Adams, 1825-1829: 2 slaves
• Andrew Jackson, 1829-1837 - 9 slaves
• Martin Van Buren, 1837-1841 - 4 slaves
• John Tyler, 4 slaves (1841-1844)
• James K. Polk, 4 slaves (1845-1849)
• Zachary Taylor, 11 slaves
There’s also this list: “Enslaved Workers on the White House Grounds (1818-1821).” On the list are names of 31 slaves and their owners, who received federal compensation for renting their slaves to the government. One of those slaves was Peter, a pickax worker, who helped clear the rough land for Lafayette Square, part of today’s National Park system. “Picker” Peter had been hired out by slave owner Thomas Murray, who pocketed the money earned by Peter’s labor.
Lafayette Square, which lies adjacent to the White House rose garden, recently received worldwide attention. On June 1 it was filled with peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters, who unknowingly stood in the way of President Trump’s plan to march with his cabinet officers and other officials across Lafayette Square for a photo-op in front of nearby St. John’s Episcopal Church, whose parish house had on May 31 suffered minor damage from an arson fire allegedly set by Black Lives Matter protesters.
Peaceful or not, the marchers in Lafayette Square were a problem. Before President Trump and other government officials marched to the church, law enforcement troops throwing tear gas and firing rubber bullets forcefully pushed out of Lafayette Square the protesters who by all accounts were peacefully gathered. Standing shortly thereafter in front of St. John’s Church, President Trump held aloft a Bible playing to the cameras but without saying a word. And no doubt not knowing the role of Black slaves in the construction of Lafayette Square or of the White House or of the Capitol building. The photo-op was universally lampooned.
Gary Dielman lives in Baker City.