Besides being the home of the U.S. President, the White House in Washington, D.C. is known for many things. It’s known for its Oval Office, for its interior design, but apparently it’s not as well known that the structure, itself, was constructed by slaves.
In Michelle Obama’s recent speech at the Democratic National Convention, she called to this fact, saying:
"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."
This is not the first time this statement has been made. In December 2, 2008, former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said, "The Capitol was built by slaves," at a dedication of the Capitol Visitors Center.
These statements have caused some to investigate and others to criticize, but here are the facts:
- Yes, slaves did build the White House. Originally, the D.C. commissioners planned on importing workers from Europe, but because of a dismal response, the commissioners turned to African Americans, both enslaved and free, to construct the President’s House.
- African American slaves who constructed the White House joined a work force composed of local white laborers and immigrants from European nations. While only a part of the work force, for the first few years, slaves were involved with almost every aspect of construction, according to Politifact.
- While the government used African American slaves to construct the White House, the government did not own the slaves. The slaves were still owned by their masters, who were later paid by the government.
- On the number of slaves hired to build the White House, that’s impossible to know.
- Prior to 1792, neither L’Enfant nor the commissioners ever used slave labor, according to Clarence Lusane’s book, "The Black History of the White House."
- In 1797, five years after construction on the White House began, all African American carpenters were banned from working on the White House, according to Clarence Lusane’s book, "The Black History of the White House." This was due to an unknown conflict between a carpenter and James Hoban, the architect behind the White House.