by Clarence Lusane
On February 9, a member of Congress took an important step in attempting to educate the nation about an important slice of history relative to the White House. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY) sent a letter to President Barack Obama suggesting that the latter find a way to commemorate those enslaved individuals who helped to build the White House.
The letter stated, in part, “An acknowledgement of the role of slave labor displayed in the White House would be an important symbol that the United States does not run from its history, but rather learns from it.” The White House, of course, it an important icon of the nation’s identity but embodies one of its most long-standing contradiction: a revolution against tyranny that maintain (and expanded) the enslavement of millions.
According to the White House website, in the last two years alone, there were 1.5 million individuals who visited the White House. None of those visitors would necessarily know that 12 U.S. presidents were slaveholders and seven of them had slaves in the building we now call the White House which opened in 1801. There is no mention of these facts either in White House tourist brochures or any other documents given to visitors.
George Washington is not included in this scenario because he and nine of his slaves spent his presidency in Philadelphia. Ironically, a plaque does exist recognizing those nine individuals which is part of the new pavilion in Philadelphia that houses the Liberty Bell. The pavilion is built over the site and specifically the slave quarters where Washington lived as president. It took a decade of protests, lawsuits, and grassroots activism to finally get the National Park Service to include the plaque which it initially refused to do.
Plaques also exist that acknowledge the slaves who helped to build the U.S. Capitol, many of whom also worked on the White House. In June 2010, Congress dedicated two plaques in “Emancipation Hall” at the Congressional Visitor’s Center. The plaques state, “This original exterior wall was constructed between 1793 and 1800 of sandstone quarried by laborers, including enslaved African Americans who were an important part of the work force that built the United States Capitol.”
As noted, many of these individuals built the White House between 1790 and 1800. This included unskilled as well as skilled labor. For example, there were at least five black carpenters – Peter, Ben, Daniel, Harry, and Tom – who worked on both structures. Slave labor also cut down trees, made bricks, cleared the land, and performed many, many other tasks all without pay, adequate food, or basic health care.
A public plaque or some other display would, in part, complete the circle of owning the history of presidents, Congress, and slavery. While there are hundreds of memorials, plaques, and other means that present a false narrative of American history, there are too few that genuinely tell the more complicated and often harsh reality that many faced as U.S. democracy unfolded. As Rep. Ackerman notes in his letter, “I urge you to take steps to have an appropriate representation acknowledging the role of slave labor in constructing the White House in an area of public viewing.”
Dr. Clarence Lusane is an Associate Professor of Political Science in the School of International Service at American University where he teaches and researches on international human rights, comparative race relations, social movements and electoral politics.
He is also an author, activist, scholar, lecturer, and journalist. For more than 30 years, he has written about and been active in national and international anti-racism politics, globalization, U.S. foreign policy, human rights and social issues such as education and drug policy. He has spent two years living in London conducting research on racism and human rights in Europe, and working with European institutions and NGOs.