NEAL CONAN, host:

Next week, America's first African-American president takes up residence in the White House, a building constructed 200 years ago in large part by slaves. The National Archives here in Washington, D.C., has documents - payrolls and pay stubs - that tell us about the people that built the people's house. If you'd like to know who they were and what we know about how they lived and worked, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org; just click on Talk of the Nation. Reginald Washington is the archivist at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C., and an African-American genealogy specialist, and he's been kind enough to join us here today in Studio 3A. Nice to have you on Talk of the Nation.

Mr. REGINALD WASHINGTON (Archivist, National Archives and Records Administration): It's nice to be here.

CONAN: And I know you brought copies of some of the records that you recently rediscovered. What are these?

Mr. WASHINGTON: Well, most of these records are payroll records, and we have vouchers that document the fact that former slaves - slaves were being paid - were not being paid, but their owners were being paid for the work that they performed on the White House, or the president's house, as it was called it in the 1790s.

CONAN: And these are - well, for one thing, the penmanship on these is incredible.

Mr. WASHINGTON: Yes, these are some sort of extraordinary documents. The penmanship, as you said, is very remarkable in that - you know, I think of times when I may have used a pen and made mistakes, but they just wrote this out without even making mistakes. So, it's very incredible and very legible writing.

CONAN: And you see some of the names, some full names, but there are a lot of people who are just listed by their first name.

Mr. WASHINGTON: Right. Some of the payroll records, for example, will show the people who receive pay for working. For example, there's a payroll record here that documents the carpenters who were paid, and as you can see, the people who are listed - at least the people who are listed by first and last names, obviously, are the whites that worked on the Capitol. It gives information about the days they worked, the rate of pay they were receiving, and in fact, they were being paid in the old British system under pounds, shillings and pence.

As you go further down the document, you will see where the slaves are being listed, and they're only being listed by their first names. It's given the rate of pay, and if one looks closely at it, you'll see that they're being paid less - well, they're not being paid at all, actually, because the - if you go further to the right-hand column, you'll see the owners who are receiving the pay for these slaves. And as I said, they're being listed only by their first name, and their, of course, their surname is not important or their family name. Actually, they have been looked upon as property. So, a result, their family name doesn't have any much meaning, certainly when they're being leased out.

CONAN: So, Washington, D.C., was virtually unpopulated at the time that this was all happening. So, these were people who worked as - were slaves on nearby farms or - and then drafted in as hired help?

Mr. WASHINGTON: Yes, most of them were slaves who were basically residing in Maryland and Virginia. And of course, some of the owners of these slaves certainly resided in those areas, and some resided here in the capitol city as such. And they were put to work on the work site at the president's house, and of course, they were housed in various things much - not much more than huts. And of course, the owners were to supply their clothing and certainly a blanket for them to sleep on, and of course, the commissioners who were established to oversee the construction of the city supplied them with the food and the housing.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller on the line. If you'd like to join us, by the way, It's 800-989-8255; email talk@npr.org. Our guest is Reginald Washington. And this is John, John is with us from Moab in Utah.

JOHN (Caller): Well, this is an interesting discussion. I wanted to get more detail about the pay stubs, but then you started to saying that, well, the owners got them. Were the slaves in any way compensated? We do know that slaves were paid some kind of compensations for some things they did; otherwise none of the slaves would have been able to buy their, say, their freedom. You know, there's a few cases where they did buy their own freedom, and which, of course, was to me an amazing fact in itself. And so, I'm wondering, one, did they - did the slaves get any kind of compensation themselves or any indications of that? And two, did they do any of the technical work? We know some of the slaves were - say, could read or maybe do math and things like that, whereas many did not. Did any of the slaves do technical work?

Mr. WASHINGTON: Well, you know, with some of the - were the slaves, and there were not only slaves working on the president's house. There were free blacks as well. And certainly in some instances, free blacks could read and write, and certainly the free blacks were paid. Now, when you speak of slaves being paid and receiving some sort of compensation, in some instances, not necessarily as they worked on the White House or the Capitol, some instances where slaves hired their time from their owner. In other words, they would go to their owner and say, look, someone wants to employ me down the road to cut wood. I'll cut that wood. They're going to pay me $15 a month, and I'll receive - the slave will receive $5 of that money, and certainly the owner would receive the remaining amount of the money.

And in some areas, not necessarily in the capitol city, but in some areas, particularly in some of the areas in South Carolina and Georgia were the slaves were hired out, they were able to use the monies that they received, that they negotiated with the owner, to buy other properties. You know, maybe they would buy chickens; they would buy cows. And of course, in those areas, they would go and certainly purchase other things and make additional money, and then sometimes many of them, who may have did a lot of - variety of things, were able to accumulate enough monies to buy their freedom, of course.

CONAN: Buying themselves.

Mr. WASHINGTON: Yes. Now, in terms of technical work on the White House, you know, most of the slaves, they did - they were bricklayers; they were carpenters; they worked in the quarries; they worked in the - a swamps where the trees where extracted to provide the joists for the White House. And some of them, no doubt, worked as, perhaps carvers. Now, they worked right alongside the whites, some of the professionals, the stonecutters and the carvers, and it wouldn't surprise me that they were doing some of that work as well. It's just like today, when you have people who apprentice that are doing work, that are working around the master carpenter or whatever, certainly they learn the techniques and the ways of doing the work. So, in a pinch, I'm sure, and not only in the pinch, when there were shortage of these types of people, certainly the slaves jumped in and did that work as well.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

JOHN: Hey, I have one additional question. I'm from New York State, and so, I'm out here in the west enjoying the fact that it ain't snowing. But when I went through the tax records for New York State - governments keep a lot tax records - I was surprised that a number of slaves that were white. Any indication what the racial breakdown of the slaves that worked on the White House were?

Mr. WASHINGTON: Well, they're - you mean in terms of racial breakdown?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

JOHN: Yeah.

Mr. WASHINGTON: I'm sure that that some of these individuals could have been Indian servants, even black or white. Most of them, however, as the documents indicate, is that they were actually slaves where the owners were receiving the compensation for their pay.

CONAN: John, thanks for the call.

JOHN: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we go now to Paul, Paul with us from Jamestown in New York. Where it is, I'm sure, snowing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PAUL (Caller): We've got plenty of snow here in Jamestown.

CONAN: Yeah.

PAUL: OK, quick question. You may have - this may have been mentioned on the radio and I missed it. Where were these documents found? And a second question, do the names of the slaves - the owners of the slaves appear on the documents?

Mr. WASHINGTON: OK, the answer to your second question first is that, yes, the names of the owners do appear on the documents. Generally, as I mentioned, you will find a column where it indicates who the individuals are who are working on the capitol, and certainly, did they - what their rate of pay per a day is, and certainly what they're receiving in terms of pounds, shillings and pence. And in the right-hand corner, they'll have the actual name of the owner who was actually receiving the pay for the work of these individuals. Actually, they - these individuals were being leased or rented to the commissioners who were established to oversee the construction of the capitol city. And so, you find these individuals - the owners, that is - in the right-hand corner. CONAN: And the other question about, how did you find these documents?

Mr. WASHINGTON: Now, these records are actually - they've been at the National Archives for years. Some year - back in 2001, we got an inquiry from a researcher who was interested in people - well, former slaves - who were slaves who had been working on the Capitol. And of course, it was less interest in the records for the president's house, but certainly that generated some search in our records. And we found these records in the commissioner's records or the accounts of the commissioners in our Treasury records that we hold at the National Archives. One wants to keep in mind that at the National Archives, we have records of the various agencies and departments of the government...

CONAN: Right.

Mr. WASHINGTON: Of the federal government. And of course, in our Treasury records and, more specifically, the accounting records of the commissioners is where these individual monthly payment records where found and vouchers.

CONAN: And what did you - when you found them - you sort of rediscovered them?

Mr. WASHINGTON: Well, I don't know that they were rediscovered, because they were there all the time. The question is - well, what happened was these records were formerly housed at our facility out in College Park. We have two facilities, one down at our college - in the College Park area and one downtown. About two or three months ago, those records were brought downtown, and of course, there - because of the situation where Barack Obama is poised to become the president, the 44th president of the United States, there was generated a lot of media interest. So, we got inquires about these records. So, my first contact with these records were probably about a month ago. And we went inside and assessed what was there and what kinds of documents were in there. And we had a media event back in December where we invited more - about 18 media outlets, and certainly we shared these documents with them and the general public.

CONAN: But when you saw these documents for the first time about a month ago...

Mr. WASHINGTON: Right.

CONAN: What was your reaction?

Mr. WASHINGTON: Well, my reaction - you want to keep in mind that I've worked with these kinds of records every day.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. WASHINGTON: But these...

CONAN: You're a professional.

Mr. WASHINGTON: Yeah. These records were especially exciting because they - you know, if we were able to look back in time and, say, ask these slaves who were working on the White House, doing the backbreaking work in the quarries and working in the swamps, and pulling out the lumber and so forth, and you were to tell them that, hey, 200 years from now, there's going to be a black man, a man of color, an African-American, who's not only going to be - he's not going to be just working in the household - White House, he's going to be making decisions that impact the nation and ultimately the entire world. And I bet they would have been - they would say, no way, there's no way that would be happening. I'm a slave. I've been a slave all my life. I'm working day in and day out, and I'm not even being paid here to work on the White House. So, there's no way that's going to happen. But it is happening.

CONAN: And I think this is clearly - it's no secret - it's not well-known, though. My first realization of it was watching the "John Adams" movie.

Mr. WASHINGTON: Yes, it's not well-known. If you were - I would bet, I'd be willing to bet that if you'd asked 10 people out in the community, did they know that blacks had worked on the White House? I'm sure the answer would be no. Although if they thought about it even more, they would say, well, you know, that may - that - it's logical that that would have happened. You want free labor, you want mass labor, what would you use? Slaves. So, certainly, I think most people will not know that.

CONAN: But an amazing rediscovery on your part just a couple of months before Barack Obama takes office at the White House.

Mr. WASHINGTON: Yeah. Well, I had a lot of help, too, with staff down at the National Archives. They do a very great job, and we have experts in many areas, and we call on all of them to get help when we're dealing with situations like these.

CONAN: Reginald Washington, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

Mr. WASHINGTON: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Thanks for bringing these copies...

Mr. WASHINGTON: For bringing me here.

CONAN: They were remarkable to look at.

Mr. WASHINGTON: Yes.

CONAN: Reginald Washington, the archives of the National Archives in records administration in Washington, D.C., and an African-American genealogist specialist with us here in Studio 3A. And you're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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