Slave Labor And The 'Longer History' Of The White House When Michelle Obama referred to slaves building the White House, she gave a nod to a back story that needs to be appreciated, says Clarence Lusane, author of The Black History of the White House.
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Slave Labor And The 'Longer History' Of The White House

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Slave Labor And The 'Longer History' Of The White House

Slave Labor And The 'Longer History' Of The White House

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First lady Michelle Obama's speech at the Democratic National Convention got a lot of attention. She spoke glowingly of Hillary Clinton and managed to criticize Donald Trump without even naming him. But there was one thing she said that both surprised and moved many. It was this reference to the White House.


MICHELLE OBAMA: I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.


OBAMA: And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent black young women, playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.

MONTAGNE: To hear more, we reached the author of "The Black History Of The White House." Clarence Lusane is also chair of Howard University's political science department.

Welcome to the program.


MONTAGNE: May I ask what the significance was for you when you heard the first lady saying this about the White House to a national audience, most of whom had probably never thought about this?

LUSANE: Yeah, I think it was a wonderful moment in American history. I thought what Michelle Obama was attempting to do was to draw that link to show that it isn't just what's going on in the White House now and that it's great that there's a black family there, but that there's a much longer history that needs to be appreciated.

MONTAGNE: It was certainly a very dramatic moment in her speech and much commented on. But I'm wondering - I think a lot of people are wondering, what do we know about these folks and what their lives were like?

LUSANE: We do have some information on some of the individual. For example, we know the names of five of what were probably about 17 or 18 carpenters who worked inside what became the White House itself. And the labor that was employed was both skilled labor as well as unskilled labor. So the carpenters, obviously, were skilled. They were people who did masontry (ph) work. A lot of it was just hard, intense, manual labor. So for example, trees had to be cut down. They had to be hauled away. Then, the ground had to be cleared. To construct these buildings, foundations had to be dug. So it was a incredible amount of hard labor that was involved.

MONTAGNE: And knowing Washington as I do, sometimes in very punishing weather.

LUSANE: Exactly. So the winters can often be bitterly cold. There are snow storms. And the summers can be crazy hot, similar to what we're going through right now. And so, during all of that, people who were forced to work continued. And what the records show is that because there was such a concern about the cost of building this brand new city, that there was pressure to have people work pretty much from can't-see to can't-see, so from early in the morning till they literally just could not see anymore at night.

MONTAGNE: In reaction to the first lady's comments, Bill O'Reilly on his show on Fox said...


BILL O'REILLY: Slaves that work there were well-fed and had decent lodgings.

MONTAGNE: What do you say to that?

LUSANE: Well, I think the overall critical issue is that people were enslaved. They had little choice about what work they could do, about what their lives would be like. And what Bill O'Reilly talks about - that some were better-fed may or may not be the case. But it never changed the fundamental issue that if the slave owner decided, at any particular point, that they wanted to remove that person, put them in a worse condition, they could do that without any repercussions at all.

MONTAGNE: What you write in your book, that George Washington initially tried to avoid using people who were enslaved as labor in constructing the White House, what was that all about?

LUSANE: 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 their - 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 non-slave labor that could get the task accomplished.

So for example, the rock quarries, which were in Virginia, was just unimaginable, back-breaking work. You had to dig these rocks out. Then, you had to load them on a boat, sail them to - across the bay. Then, they had to be unloaded, and then, they had to be carried to the site. So this was just, you know, grueling, grueling kind of work. And nobody was really willing - who didn't have the choice - was really willing to do it. So slave labor played, you know, a massive role in getting the city built.

MONTAGNE: Clarence Lusane is the author of "The Black History Of The White House."

Thank you very much for joining us.

LUSANE: Thank you.

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