A House That Was Built By Slaves

On Monday July 25th, First Lady Michelle Obama delivered a speech at the Democratic National Convention in which she spoke of family and the impact that the next President of the United States will have on our children. In a line that has already become iconic for it’s simplicity, candor and passionate acuity, Michelle Obama summed up the paradoxical reality of her own family’s life in the White House:

“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.”

In this powerful statement the First Lady shined a light on an ugly history of oppression as well as the opportunity and progress that is indicative of the American dream. In the days since her speech there has been much debate surrounding this particular line. Some called it race baiting, others questioned the accuracy of the statement, and supporters praised the First Lady’s unapologetic acknowledgement of the complexities of race in America. Political fact checkers went into overdrive ultimately drawing the conclusion that yes, slaves did help build the White House. Bill O’Reilly accepted that slaves were involved in the construction but asserted that they had it pretty good and were well fed.

Author of The Invisibles: The Untold Story of African American Slaves in the White House, Jesse J. Holland said of O’Reilly’s comment “We know as construction workers they were expected to do hard, grueling, back-breaking work, so they had to feed them enough so they could actually get their money’s worth. Were they well fed? That’s not something that, right now, history supports.”

In his book Holland chronicles the African American experience inside the White House from its beginnings in 1782 until 1862, when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation that granted slaves their freedom. During these years, slaves were the only African Americans to whom the most powerful men in the United States were exposed on a daily, and familiar, basis. By reading about these often-intimate relationships, readers come to better understand some of the views that various presidents held about class and race in American society, and how these slaves contributed not only to the life and comforts of the presidents they served, but to America as a whole.

Holland has been quoted about the First Lady’s speech by the Associated Press, The New York Times, Politfact, The Washington Post, The Atlantic and many more.

Some may see Michelle Obama’s acknowledgement of the slaves who built the White House as controversial, but to those people Holland says “For me, finding out the truth and acknowledging the participation of everyone in the construction of this county just makes our country richer.”

You can follow Jesse on Twitter @jessejholland and purchase The Invisibles: The Untold Story of African American Slaves in the White House on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or at your local indie bookstore.

by Lydia Shamah and Sagine Corrielus