The foundation for American democracy is SLAVERY
Today is Presidents Day, a holiday honoring George Washington, who forced hundreds of enslaved men, women, and children to work from sunrise to sunset, six days a week, for the duration of their lives. Some states also use the day to celebrate Thomas Jefferson, who impregnated a 14-year-old girl he legally owned, and Abraham Lincoln, who ordered 38 Dakota men killed for resisting genocide in the largest mass execution in U.S. history.
Today’s newsletter explores the white supremacy baked into even the most iconic buildings of this nation.
By Nicole Cardoza (she/her)
Many cultural institutions in D.C. were built by enslaved people, including the White House. President George Washington initially planned to import workers from Europe to complete the ambitious project but had trouble recruiting staff. Instead, they decided to “contract” enslaved laborers from neighboring communities. The government paid the owners, not the enslaved people, for their labor (White House Historical Association).
Often, owners would rent out the people they enslaved for extra money. The enslaved person would provide the labor, while the contract holder would pay a wage directly to the owner. The White House Historical Association (WHHA)* was able to piece together some of the names of enslaved people who contributed to the project based on whether the owners included it on the payroll information (WHHA).
“Enslaved African Americans, leased out by their slave owners, mined sandstone from local quarries and built the United States Capitol, the White House, and the Smithsonian Castle. Congress, the institution that guarded the peoples’ freedom, held sessions in a building constructed by forced labor, and the legislators would have witnessed lines of shackled slaves marching by daily en route to the Deep South” (NMAAHC).
And enslaved people were also exploited inside the completed White House. Back then, each President was required to pay for all White House expenses, including staff, out of pocket. It was “too costly” to hire fair-waged laborers, so enslaved people were forced into various roles like chefs, gardeners, stable hands, maids, butlers, lady’s maids, and valet (WHHA).
At least nine presidents forced enslaved people to work in the White House. Some even purchased enslaved people directly. President Andrew Jackson bought a young eight-year-old enslaved girl named Emeline to work at the White House (Washington Post). The first child born at the White House was born to Ursula Granger Hughes, a fourteen-year-old cook enslaved by Thomas Jefferson. The child died a few months later (WHHA).
“The Female I have none, but those I brought with me, except a Negro woman who is wholy with the Cook in the kitchin, and I am happy in not having any occasion for any others for a very sad set of creatures they are.”
First Lady Abigail Adams, 1793
"I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves."
First Lady Michelle Obama, 2016
The forced labor of enslaved people literally laid the foundation for American democracy. The United States is exceptional in the degree to which its economic growth was “thoroughly powered by the thriving institution of slavery (ACWM). It was also one of the last countries in the world to legally abolish it (PolitiFact). Even today, an estimated 58,000 people in the U.S. are living in a condition of de facto slavery, largely undocumented people and unhoused youth (Inverse). We are told that the White House symbolizes this country’s unique commitment to democracy, equality, liberty and justice for all. But even a cursory look into the building’s history reveals instead an extraordinary legacy of brutality and impression as the base for the systems that stand to this day.
*This information is provided by the White House Historical Association, a private nonprofit which acts independently from the government. Although the information on the construction is available on the official White House website, there’s no mention of the enslaved people that brought it to life.
- Historians Are Searching For Stories Of Enslaved People Who Built The White House (NPR)
- How one of Lincoln’s strongest political rivals became a critical part of his cabinet—and one of his era’s greatest champions of black rights (WSJ)
- When Abraham Lincoln Tried to Resettle Free Black Americans in the Caribbean (History)