After Michelle Obama gave a tremendously inspiring speech to the Democratic National Convention Monday night (July 25, 2016), she has been met with great disbelief and even scorn for citing a little-discussed fact that dramatized her unique African-American family’s place in history. Here is the context and the quote that so many are holding up to scrutiny:
"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 -- 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."
Some said the First Lady's choice to mention this fact amounted to an attempt to divide the country along racial lines. I guess these people think by saying “the White House was built by slaves,” they contend Michelle Obama meant slaves, alone, did all the construction. As you can clearly see in the citation above, she did not say that.
First of all, let's establish the facts.
1. Yes, the White House had been built by slaves.
“There is little dispute among historians that slaves had a role in the building of the White House. According to the White House Historical Association’s website, planners had initially intended to import workers from Europe but had trouble recruiting any, so they 'turned to African-American — enslaved and free — to provide the bulk of labor that built the White House, the United States Capitol, and other early government buildings.'
“The association said slaves had worked at the government’s quarry in Aquia, Va., to cut the stone for the walls of the White House. The construction team included white laborers from Maryland and Virginia and immigrants from Ireland, Scotland and other parts of Europe, the association said.
“Jesse Holland, a Washington-based journalist who wrote The Invisibles: The Untold Story of African American Slaves in the White House, said that most people never thought about how the president’s house and other important government buildings had been constructed, but that historians had long acknowledged the role of slaves.”
(Julie Hirschfeld Davis. “Yes, Slaves Did Help Build the White House.” The New York Times. July 26, 2016.)
“If you think about it, it would be pretty obvious: The White House is a neo-Classical mansion that was built in the South during slavery, and a majority of the mansions that were built in the South during slavery used slaves,” Mr. Holland said in an interview.
2. When she used the White House in her speech as symbolic of a noble structure and of an ideal democracy, Michelle Obama also pointed to the changes in the official residence and workplace of the President of the United States – changes in the beliefs and changes in the policies of its inhabitants.
In 2016, President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and their daughters Malia and Sasha are the first Afro-American residents of the White House. The historical significance of this achievement must not be forgotten. Why?
Actually, three Southerners – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison – were most instrumental in locating the national capital, Washington, DC, in slave territory. The first capital in New York City, a free state, then moved to Philadelphia. Yet, in Philadelphia a slave-owner could only keep a slave for six months before freeing him, unless he was temporarily sent into slave territory, which was inconvenient to the owner. So the fathers set aside land around a slave town, Alexandria, Virginia, to be the capital of the new nation.
Most of the "founding fathers" were slaveholders and rich plantation owners including Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Paine, John Hancock and James Madison to name a few. Plantation owning and slave owning went hand in hand. The biggest challenge the founders failed to confront was the existence of slavery on American soil.
The most radical proposal in the early days of the republic was to ship slaves and other blacks back to Africa. Jefferson, himself, believed that blacks would eventually have to be removed from the U.S. or else whites would live in perpetual dread that the slaves would rise up in rebellion. Such fears prompted a later president, James Monroe, to support the creation of the American Colonization Society (founded 1816-1817).
(“Thomas Jefferson And Other Presidents Who Owned Slaves.” Journal of American History. Hubpages.com. October 12, 2014.)
Twelve American presidents have owned slaves and eight of them owned slaves while serving as president.
Following is the number of slaves each of the 12 slave-holding presidents owned. (CAPS indicate the president owned slaves while serving as the chief executive):
-GEORGE WASHINGTON (between 250-350 slaves)
-THOMAS JEFFERSON (about 200)
-JAMES MADISON (more than 100)
-JAMES MONROE (about 75)
-ANDREW JACKSON (fewer than 200)
-Martin Van Buren (one)
-William Henry Harrison (eleven)
-JOHN TYLER (about 70)
-JAMES POLK (about 25)
-ZACHARY TAYLOR (fewer than 150)
-Andrew Johnson (probably eight)
-Ulysses S. Grant (probably five)
(Rob Lopresti. “Slaveholding Presidents.” White House Historical Association. Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies. Grand Valley University. 2016.)
Yes, the irony of Ulysses S. Grant owning slaves must be noted. Grant actually owned a slave named William Jones, whom he freed in 1859. Between 1854 and 1859 Grant worked and lived on an 850-acre farm in Missouri, near St. Louis, that was owned by his father-in-law. Grant’s wife, Julia, also owned slaves, and during Grant’s management of the farm he worked along with one of them, a man named Dan.
(Brooks Jackson. “Slavery at White Haven. National Park Service Web site. https://www.nps.gov/ulsg/learn/historyculture/slaveryatwh.htm)
I contend that First Lady Michelle Obama understands the meaning of waking up in a house that was built by slaves like no other wife and mother in the history of America. Her understanding of that house and its construction in clear. It is a house constructed by slaves.
But, even more importantly, her comprehension of American history and her understanding of an incomplete commitment of the government to liberty, freedom, and justice is accurate. Michelle Obama, like no other female, understands just how far the country has come since the days of Washington, Jefferson, Taylor, and Grant – those among the American presidents who owned slaves while living in the United States and while serving as the chief executive.
How can anyone question Mrs. Obama's judgment or call her invocation of the slaves who built the White House “playing the race card” as an attempt to divide the country? The twelve slave-holding presidents “built” the symbolic foundation for the once-prejudiced White House without even laying a brick or pounding a nail. They willingly propagated slavery in the United States of America for well over 100 years.
Now, I know this all has changed, and I understand that many would prefer to bury the significance of this wicked bondage and servitude. But, we should not cover it up. In fact, we must be sure future generations know the real chronicle of our past. We would do well to listen carefully to Michelle Obama and walk the proverbial “mile in her shoes.” In a nation that seems willing to support politics over substance, our children and grandchildren are confronted daily by those who wish to use falsehoods and half-truths to gain power, position, and prestige.
The "house" of America must be kept in order, never again to be occupied by those who would enslave others. Bondage today is concealed by a cloak of deception founded in ignorance. Our nation will never reach its lofty ideals until we realize that an evil master can and will use everything in his toolbox of dirty tricks to oppress those who remain uniformed and misinformed. People who refuse to research the facts and reach logical conclusions will be reduced to slaves, even in the land of the free. There are plenty of slave-holding leaders ready to turn back time.