It was a sentence that went viral, spoken by then-First Lady Michelle Obama and quickly shared across the internet, as many political sound bites have done before. But this one was shadowed by a deep history of pain that few had spoken about on such a major platform.
During the 2016 Democratic Convention in Philadelphia, Michelle Obama was explaining the story of the United States, the presidency, and race in America, and trying to explain how she got to that stage. The whole speech is worth a listen — and led some pundits to wonder whether she would run for office herself — but that one line seemed to summarize it all:
“I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.”
The statement resonated deeply with people across the country, according to Stewart McLaurin, president of the White House Historical Association, the nonprofit that has preserved White House history for six decades.
McLaurin says that following the DNC speech, the organization was flooded with calls from people wanting to learn the history behind that line. Did enslaved people really build the White House? Where did they live? What were their names?
For the past five years, historians with the WHHA have been working on a project called “Slavery in the President’s Neighborhood,” collecting any information they can find on hundreds of enslaved individuals who worked in Lafayette Square, built the White House, or lived in uncomfortable quarters within the house, working as unpaid laborers for the First Family across multiple administrations.
On the project’s website, where the historians have compiled articles and other resources, the association writes:
“While there are few written accounts of the enslaved and free African Americans who built, lived, and worked at the White House, their voices can be found in letters, newspapers, memoirs, census records, architecture, and oral histories.
By connecting these details from diverse sources, the White House Historical Association seeks to return these individuals to the historical forefront.”
The research is ongoing, McLaurin says, but what they’ve found so far is powerful enough to warrant public recognition.
On July 28, the association will unveil three markers at the northern end of Lafayette Square — where it meets H Street and Black Lives Matter Plaza — that outline the history of slavery and the White House. The markers will also describe the legacy of activism in the park, as well as efforts to preserve the park and the historic homes that surround it over the years.
“We knew that enslaved people had helped build the White House,” McLaurin says. “But we didn’t know — what can we find out about who they were? What can we find out about what they did, where they came from, what were their roles?”
The historians dug through records and enlisted the help of some researchers at Georgetown University, who had been doing research on the university’s own history with slavery. They started to learn more about the stone cutters, axemen, carpenters, and brick makers who built the executive mansion between 1792 and 1800. Over those eight years, enslaved laborers worked alongside white wage workers and craftsmen, according to the WHHA.
So far, the historians have created an index with about 300 names of enslaved people who either helped build the White House or worked for any of the 10 presidents who owned slaves while in presidential housing (according to surviving documentation, at least 12 presidents were slave owners at some point in their lives, per the WHHA).
Many of the names are incomplete — for example, “Bob (hired out by Benjamin Burrough).” McLaurin notes that the pay rosters for Lafayette Park only listed enslaved people by their owners’ names. The organization is asking anyone with helpful information about the list to email SPN@whha.org.
The new plaques will explain this history. They will also dive into the story of social demonstrations that began in 1917, with pickets outside the White House during the Women’s Suffrage Movement. A third plaque will discuss the efforts the Kennedys took to preserve Lafayette Square and prevent the homes around it from being demolished for federal office buildings — those office buildings were eventually built, but farther away from the park.
While the association can’t reveal exactly what the markers will look like until July 28, McLaurin says they were based on the style of educational boards at the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, which depicts the second flag-raising on the island of Iwo Jima during World War II.
“They’ll probably come up to about your knee, or maybe a little higher, and you’ll be able to see beyond them,” McLaurin says. “You’ll read the story of those who labored in that park and built that large house that you see across the way.”
First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy started the WHHA in 1961, and the markers will be revealed on the morning of her birthday, part of a larger celebration of the association’s 60 years in operation.
But McLaurin says the work is far from over. The next phase, he says, is to find descendants of the enslaved workers who might not know their family’s connections to the most recognizable house in the country.
“I would love to find a young woman in St. Louis who didn’t know that her great, great, great, great, grandfather helped build the White House,” McLaurin says. “Now, I don’t know how possible that’s going to be in the end and how many actual names or descendants will result from this work. But I think that’s an important part of the work for us to undertake and to the degree we can, tell these stories about these individuals.”
This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.