U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama speaks during the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Philadelphia on July 25, 2016.
Daniel Acker—Bloomberg / Getty Images
By Olivia B. Waxman
July 26, 2016

When First Lady Michelle Obama took the stage on Monday night at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, her well-received speech came in stark contrast to some of the more crisis-oriented language that came out of last week’s Republican convention.

Speaking of how barriers can be broken and disparaging the idea that “somehow we need to make [America] great again,” she gave one particularly striking example:

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.

When construction on the White House began in 1792, the site’s location between slave states Virginia and Maryland meant the labor force was made up of enslaved people and free blacks, in addition to white laborers from the area and immigrants from Ireland and Scotland, according to the White House Historical Association. As the Association points out, the federal government as an entity did not actually own the slaves, but rather hired them out from their masters—but, as Ethel Lewis noted in her 1937 history of the building, during the work some of them lived in “mean huts” on the grounds of what would later become the White House gardens.

Jesse Holland writes in his book Black Men Built the Capitol: Discovering African-American History that slaves helped to dig the building’s foundation. Slaves were also used at Virginia quarries to chop stone out of the ground for the walls of the building, and elsewhere to dig clay for bricks and saw timber for as little as 13 cents a day—wages that were most likely pocketed by their masters.

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And slaves worked inside the early White House, too, Holland writes:

Starting with Jefferson’s administration, the majority of the White House staff from 1800 through the Civil War consisted of slaves. These slaves went with the U.S. presidents to work in the White House because at that time Congress did not provide money for a domestic staff for the president. Presidents who owned slaves—Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Andrew Jackson, John Tyler, James Polk, and Zachary Taylor— brought them to the White House.

But who exactly were the slaves who built the White House?

As Holland notes in another book, The Invisibles: The Untold Story of African American Slaves in the White House, it is no longer possible to provide a complete answer to that question. “There were thousands upon thousands in the Washington area at that time, with the largest single slave population in the United States being in Virginia at 292,627, according to the 1790 census,” he writes. “But the city commission, made up of President Washington’s allies, never bothered to record the names of this first crew or which plantations they came from.”

But, though their names have been lost to time, their memory—as Michelle Obama made clear—has not been forgotten.

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