Slave Labor at the White House: Clarence Lusane Responds

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One of the memorable things to happen so far at the 2016 Democratic National Convention was First Lady Michelle Obama’s speech mentioning slave labor at the White House in her speech. Here was the exact quote:

“That is the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.”

Clarence Lusane, author of The Black History of the White House (City Lights, 2010) was recently interviewed by the The Washington Post and NPR’s Morning Edition on the subject of slave labor at the White House which is still – frustratingly – not a well-known fact to the general population. In the Washington Post interview, Lusane addressed Michelle Obama’s speech itself, which he called a “pivotal moment.”

“I’m glad that she mentioned the role of enslaved Americans at the White House, because she presented a larger audience with a history that most people are not being taught in our schools. I certainly wasn’t taught that not only were many of our presidents slave owners, but that the most renowned building in our nation was, in part, built by slave labor.”

He went on to address the factual history which he explores in his book:

“We know quite a bit, including the names of a number of the people who were enslaved. Some of them were skilled laborers, such as those who worked in carpentry or masonry. We have the payment records from the people who owned them.

“There would have been a sizable number of enslaved people involved. They were building the city as a whole. It took 10 years, and you can be pretty sure that given the work — and the possibility of injuries, diseases, and accidents — that people died.”

clarence at white house
Clarence Lusane

Lusane was also interviewed by NPR’s Morning Edition and went into more detail about this topic, responding to Bill O’Reilly comments that slaves working at the White House were “well-fed and had decent lodging” and also George Washington’s relationship to his slaves:

“I think he always had an ambiguous understanding in relationship to slavery. So in building this brand new symbol of the new America, the democracy that they were trying to promote and to establish the new country as a beacon in the world for liberation and freedom, it was clearly compromised by the issue of slavery. So I think in that context George Washington would have preferred not to have to address the issue of slave labor building the Capitol, building the White House. The problem was that there was not enough nonslave labor that could get the task accomplished.

“So for example, the rock quarries which were in Virginia — [it was] just unimaginable back-breaking work. You had to dig these rocks out, then you had to load them on a boat, sail them across the [Chesapeake] Bay, then they had to be unloaded and then they had to be carried to the site. So this is just grueling, grueling kind of work. And nobody was really willing … to do it. So slave labor played a massive role in getting this city built.”

The complete Morning Edition interview can be listened to below.

For more about this, we recommend Lusane’s book, The Black History of the White House, published by City Lights. Get it directly from us or ask for it at your local independent bookseller. For more about Clarence, go here.

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