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 if the owners included them on the payroll information (WHHA).
• Read the names and stories of the known enslaved people associated with the White House, provided by the White House Historical Association.
• Find three historical buildings of note in your community and/or that have personal significance, and research how they were constructed.
Read the story of James Hemings, enslaved by President Thomas Jefferson, and his influence on French culinary cuisine, featured in our 28 Days of Black History series.
Enslaved people did the bulk of the construction work, from creating the raw materials needed for the project to leveling the ground and building it. Many other government buildings in D.C., including the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol, were also made by enslaved people (Curbed). The National Museum of African American History and Culture has a block of Aquia Creek sandstone removed from the East Front of the U.S. Capitol in their collection:
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 wage 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 14-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 kitchen, 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 abolish it legally (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). More directly, there are still several government buildings that still rely on prison labor (TruthDig). 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.
• The White House was built and tended to by enslaved people early in history.
• The Washington Monument, the U.S. Capitol, and other government buildings were also made by enslaved people.
• Today, an estimated 58,000 people in the U.S. are living in a condition of de facto slavery.
*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.