WASHINGTON - When Barack Obama takes the oath of office at the US
Capitol, the first African-American to become president will be
standing amid stonework laid by slaves more than two centuries ago. He
will appear before a crowd massed on the Mall, where slaves were once
held in pens, ready for auction. He will end his inauguration route at
the White House, where the foundations were laid by slaves, and where
eight presidents held blacks as their human property.
At nearly every turn of Obama's march to history, the thread that
deeply intertwines the founding of the nation with its great stain,
slavery, will be evident. Yet for all the attention on Obama's racial
breakthrough, the full story of slavery in the nation's capital remains
beneath the surface.
While the Lincoln Memorial on the far end of the Mall draws
attention to the fight to end slavery, there is no memorial at the spot
near the Capitol where slaves were once kept and sold in a three-story
building called the Yellow House.
"Many people come down to the National Mall and never realize that
they are walking on the site of the slave markets," said Jesse J.
Holland, author of the recent book, "Black Men Built the Capitol." Now,
with Obama's inauguration, historians are hoping that the role of
slaves in the history of building Washington will become more widely
Obama is the son of a black African father and a white Kansan
mother, while his wife, Michelle, has a direct connection to America's
history of enslavement, as Obama noted during the presidential
campaign, saying the next first lady "carries within her the blood of
slaves and slave owners." Her great-great grandfather, on her father's
side, was born into slavery and is believed to have lived in a small
cabin at a coastal South Carolina rice plantation.
Thus, a story that begins with slavery comes full circle with the
arrival of the Obamas. "It is an affirmation of the whole democratic
ideal in American history," said historian William Seale, author of
"The President's House."
It was in the early 1790s that the government of the United States,
founded on the notion that "all men are created equal," began to pay
slaveholders for the work of their slaves on both the Capitol and the
"Keep the yearly hirelings at work from sunrise to sunset -
particularly the Negroes," the commission that oversaw construction of
the Capitol instructed a supervisor, according to documents in a
recently compiled congressional report. From 1795 to 1801, there were
385 payments for what was called "Negro hire," referring to the hiring
of slaves from their masters to help build the Capitol.
From quarrying sandstone to sawing giant logs, the slaves gradually
shaped the Capitol's foundation. While the building has been
reconstructed and expanded many times over the years, the stonework
laid by slave labor can still be seen at the west elevation of the old
North Wing, near where Obama will take the oath of office. Relatively
little is known about the slaves who helped build the Capitol, but pay
records do provide some of their names, including Gerrard, who was
leased for $13, and Will, who was leased for $12.91. One record notes
that "Caleb Varnal's Negro Sawyer" was leased for $20.33 on July 6,
1795. The documents don't specify the duration of the slaves' service.
Overlooking the inaugural scene will be the Statue of Freedom, the
figure that stands grandly atop the Capitol dome. Yet, as documented in
a congressional report, it was a slave named Phillip Reid who played a
crucial role in turning a plaster cast into the statue. It is "one of
the great ironies in the Capitol's history," the report says, that the
statue was made possible by "a workman helping to cast a noble
allegorical representation of American freedom when he himself was not
free." Reid, who had been purchased for $1,200, later did become free
and may have seen the statue hoisted atop the dome.
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Similarly, the President's House, as the White House was first
known, was constructed with significant help from slave labor, as well
as free blacks and whites. Slaves lived in huts amid a cacophony of
brick kilns and sawing operations, probably on the site of what is now
Lafayette Park. One slave, George, was owned by James Claggett and
leased to the federal government for five months, according to a pay
stub recently put on display by the National Archives. The document, in
elegant script, says that "the commissioners of the Federal District"
paid Claggett "for hire of Negro George," for "working at the
The construction of the President's House began in 1792, with slaves
often toiling "seven days a week during the high construction summer
months alongside white workers and artisans," according to a history
compiled by the White House Historical Association. An estimated 120
slaves helped dig the foundation of the White House and brought
stonework to the site. Some of the stonework can still be seen in the
exterior of the original, central portion of the building.
The first president to move into the mansion, John Adams of
Massachusetts, was antislavery. But his successor, Thomas Jefferson, at
various times brought a number of slaves to live with him in the White
House. The other presidents who owned slaves while living in the White
House were James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, John Tyler,
William Henry Harrison, James Polk, and Zachary Taylor, according to
the historian Seale.
Part of the history of slaves who lived in the White House is
preserved in the thin but remarkable memoir of Paul Jennings, who was
owned by Madison and published a volume titled, "A Colored Man's
Reminiscences of James Madison."
"When Mr. Madison was chosen President, we came on and moved into
the White House," Jennings wrote. "The east room was not finished, and
Pennsylvania Avenue was not paved, but was always in an awful condition
from either mud or dust. The city was a dreary place."
Jennings recalled how he set up a table at the White House with
"ale, cider, and wine, and placed them in the coolers," when a free
black raced up and announced that British invaders were on their way
into the city. "Clear out, clear out!" the man yelled. The Madison
family and Jennings fled just before the arrival of the British, who
"ate up the very dinner, and drank the wines, &c., that I had
prepared for the President's party," Jennings wrote.
After Madison died, Jennings was able to buy his freedom from Dolley
Madison, who later became relatively destitute for a time. Jennings,
hearing of the plight of Mrs. Madison, wrote that he "occasionally gave
her small sums from own pocket, though I had years before bought my
freedom of her."
Now, exactly two centuries after Madison became president and
brought slaves with him to the White House, Barack and Michelle Obama
will move into the home.
A previous president from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, signed the
Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves. Asked to explain his
decision, Lincoln sat in his White House office, in what is now known
as the Lincoln Bedroom, and took out a piece of Executive Mansion
stationary. "If slavery is not wrong," Lincoln wrote, "nothing is