The House that Blacks Built: 3 U.S. Monuments & Institutions Built by Slaves
by G. Brown
Praise is still pouring in for Michelle Obama’s speech on the opening night of the Democratic convention…but some people are having trouble swallowing a little bit of truth. This exchange between pop singer Kelly Clarkson and a poster on Twitter sums it up perfectly:
Well said Clarkson…pretty sure the slaves didn’t like it either. Out of everything Mrs. Obama said, people were pricked by the idea that slaves built the White House. First of all, you should probably take it as fact that the woman living in the White House the last eight years probably knows. But if they can’t believe the First Lady, then maybe they’ll believe politico.com which confirms that slaves did help build the White House when planners had trouble recruiting Europeans to do the work. Journalist Jesse Holland and author of The Invisibles: The Untold Story of African American Slaves in the White House also attributes slaves with building many of the structures in and around the nation’s capitol. Holland says, “If you think about it, it would be pretty obvious: The White House is a neoClassical mansion that was built in the South during slavery, and a majority of the mansions that were built in the South during slavery used slaves.”
Here are 3 other American monuments, buildings and institutions that African Americans built brick by brick, rail by rail and stone by stone.
1-The U.S. Capitol This one seemed to pool in the nation’s collective conscious when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi unveiled a commemorative marker four years ago in the visitors center that finally paid tribute to the Black men and women who toiled and sweated under what she called “the tragedy and sin of slavery” to erect the Capitol. According to politico, “Slaves were likely involved in all aspects of construction, including carpentry, masonry, carting, rafting, plastering, glazing and painting, the task force reported. And slaves appear to have shouldered alone the grueling work of sawing logs and stones.” The slaveholders were paid while Blacks did all the work and were only acknowledged in the annals of history by their first name until 2012 with the addition of the commemorative marker.
2-George Washington’s Home Mount Vernon is still one of America’s most visited tourist sites. America’s first president lived here after the death of his half-brother. Deciding to expand on the plantation designed by his father, Washington spent 50 years adding onto the 21-room mansion. This is just one of the houses that slaves built for Presidents….enslaved laborers were also used to build James Madison’s Montpelier home and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello dwelling.
3-America’s Railways Norfolk Southern, CSX, and Union Pacific are easily recognizable major railways that may never have existed without the help of slave labor. According to USA Today, “nearly every rail line built east of the Mississippi River and south of the Mason-Dixon line before the Civil War was constructed or run at least partly by slaves.” One historian said that Blacks served in just about every capacity including as brakemen and sometimes as enginemen who actually ran the trains.