Main Content

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

— First Lady Michelle Obama, 2016

When First Lady Michelle Obama delivered this powerful statement during a speech before the Democratic National Convention on July 25, 2016, she shed light on a less discussed element of White House history. Enslaved people were involved in every aspect of White House construction—from the quarrying of stone, to the cutting of timber, to the production of bricks, to the physical labor of assembling its roof and walls. Enslaved people worked as axemen, stone cutters, carpenters, brick makers, sawyers, and laborers throughout each stage of construction from 1792 through 1800. As Mrs. Obama highlighted, the use of enslaved labor to build one of the most revered symbols of American democracy, and the home of the President of the United States, represents the paradoxical relationship between the institution of slavery and the ideals of freedom and liberty enshrined in America’s founding documents. While many authors and historians have dedicated scholarship and research to the construction of the White House, this article builds upon their efforts by weaving in the stories of the enslaved people who often were excluded entirely from this narrative.1

After Congress passed the Residence Act on July 16, 1790, establishing the location for the new capital city of Washington, D.C. along the banks of the “river Potomack,” President George Washington took an active role overseeing construction in the Federal City. He appointed three commissioners for the District of Columbia in January 1791 to manage federal construction projects: Thomas Johnson, David Stuart, and Daniel Carroll.2 Soon after selecting the commissioners, President Washington appointed French-born engineer Pierre (Peter) Charles L’Enfant to survey, map, and plan the new city.3 Together, they selected the site for the White House.4 The following year, in March 1792, the commissioners announced and advertised a national design competition for the President’s House and Capitol Building. In July, Irish-born architect James Hoban’s design for the President’s House was selected by the commissioners with Washington’s approval, and preparations on the building site commenced.5 On October 13, 1792, White House construction officially began with the laying of a cornerstone during a Masonic ceremony.6 Click here to learn more about the enslaved households of President George Washington.

This recreated map by Don Hawkins, depicts Washington City in 1801. The unbuilt streets are shown as dots. The map depicts a stark and unbuilt landscape with most existing construction located near the President's House and the Capitol Building.

Don Hawkins

Over the course of the next eight years, enslaved laborers worked alongside white wage workers and craftsmen to produce raw materials and construct the President’s House. First, laborers cleared the land, built roads, wharves, and bridges, and felled trees to make way for construction. In December 1791, the federal government purchased a stone quarry belonging to the prominent Brent family on Wiggington’s Island in Stafford County, Virginia. Situated on a small tributary called Aquia Creek, several miles inland from the Potomac River, the quarry provided easy transportation of stone upriver to the building sites of the President’s House and Capitol Building.7 While the labor records for the quarry’s operation are incomplete, the records of the commissioners and their published advertisements suggest that enslaved people were later hired to cut and move this stone.8 Meanwhile, brick makers built kilns near the White House building site to produce bricks for the building’s interior structure, while axemen felled trees in Maryland and Virginia forests and shipped the lumber to Washington to be used as floor and roof timbers. As these building materials were produced and gathered, laborers constructed the building under the watchful eye of foremen and overseers. Throughout the construction, most unskilled laborers earned around $0.31 per day. Skilled craftsmen like stone cutters earned closer to $1.34 per day. While there were certainly some skilled enslaved laborers, most were probably considered unskilled and their owners were paid as such.9 Although the White House was not entirely complete, most construction had concluded when President John Adams moved into the residence on November 1, 1800. Click here to learn more about the households of President John Adams.

The decision to use enslaved labor in construction came naturally to the commissioners. All three of the original commissioners belonged to the landed gentry and owned enslaved people. Some of the later commissioners even hired out their own enslaved people to labor on the Capitol Building and the White House. For example, Gustavus Scott, who began serving in the role of commissioner in 1794, hired out two enslaved men named Bob and Kit, pocketing their wages for himself.10 In addition, the location of the new Federal City, carved out of two states that permitted slavery, Maryland and Virginia, made it convenient to hire out enslaved individuals from nearby landowners.

The use of enslaved labor to build one of the most revered symbols of American democracy, and the home of the President of the United States, represents the paradoxical relationship between the institution of slavery and the ideals of freedom and liberty enshrined in America’s founding documents.

The first mention of slavery in the commissioners’ records appeared on April 13, 1792, when they resolved to hire, “good labouring negroes by the year, the masters cloathing them well and finding each a blanket, the commissioners finding them provisions and paying twenty one pounds a year.”11 This course of action was not a new one, as many local slave owners had been hiring out their enslaved laborers to neighbors and businesses for some time. Owners collected a wage while continuing to provide clothing and some medical care. The commissioners typically provided workers with housing, two meals per day, and basic medical care. This arrangement allowed the nascent capital to reap the benefits of labor without bearing total responsibility for the workers’ general wellbeing. If an enslaved worker did not show up to work, the overseer simply docked the pay given to the owner.12 Many of the documented enslaved laborers worked on both the White House and the Capitol Building. Because these two projects were so closely intertwined, it is often difficult to determine which laborers specifically worked on the White House between the procurement and production of resources and the shuttling of labor between sites.

According to meticulous research by historian Bob Arnebeck, over 200 known enslaved individuals labored on the White House and Capitol Building. You can access an index of the enslaved people currently identified here. However, there are likely many more enslaved people who worked on these federal building projects and remain unknown—their names are either lost to history or await future discovery. Determining anything more than an enslaved person’s first name is extraordinarily difficult. Their names are often denoted as the enslaved individual’s first name, their owner’s full or last name, and their owner’s signature on payrolls and timesheets from 1794 to 1800.13

This oil painting, completed by artist Peter Waddell in 2007, depicts White House construction as it may have appeared in 1796.

Peter Waddell for the White House Historical Association

One such timesheet contains the name “N Jacob George Fenwick.”14 The “N” in front of the name indicates that the worker was enslaved. Jacob was his first name and George Fenwick was his owner. With only a first name, it is difficult to learn more information about Jacob. However, there are some details that can be extracted from just a name, such as location and genealogical information about the slave owner. According to additional records, it appears George Fenwick also hired out another enslaved man—Orston—for federal construction projects.15 By using available genealogical information about Fenwick, it can be determined that he was born sometime before 1749 in St. Mary’s County, Maryland. He died in Washington, D.C. on October 26, 1811. According to the 1800 census, the year White House construction concluded, Fenwick lived with three enslaved individuals at his Georgetown home.16 Based on this information, it might appear that Fenwick did not own many enslaved individuals. His 1811 will, however, paints a different picture.

According to the will, George Fenwick left four city lots in the new city of Washington and significant tracts of land in Prince George’s County, Maryland, and St. Mary’s County, Maryland, to his sons. He also left his wife Margaret, “my dwelling plantation in St. Mary’s Co., called ‘Swamp Island’ and lots before mentioned; also half of all my negroes.”17 The direction to leave his wife “half” of his enslaved people suggests that he owned a considerable number of enslaved individuals. In addition, Fenwick stated that his land in Prince George’s County contained 287 acres, while his St. Mary’s County plantation consisted of 400 acres. The amount of acreage listed in this will suggests that Fenwick was involved in tobacco farming, one of the most lucrative crops in southern Maryland for the time period. The intensive nature of this crop typically required large amounts of enslaved labor to cultivate and harvest. Therefore, this information suggests that Fenwick was likely a wealthy plantation owner. The Jacob and Ortson listed in the commissioners’ records probably came from one of these locations in southern Maryland.

In fact, many slave owners who appear in the surviving documentation came from southern Maryland, specifically Prince George’s, Charles, St. Mary’s, and Calvert Counties. Each of these counties had convenient access to the Potomac River, making it easy to transport enslaved people upriver to work on federal construction projects like the White House. Some slave owners in northern Virginia also supplied enslaved labor to Washington, D.C. Because the capital city did not have a large population at the onset of the initial construction, the commissioners hired out enslaved people from a variety of slave owners in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. Since the commissioners were wealthy landowners themselves, it is likely they communicated with other landowners to create a network of enslaved labor. To further explore the movement of enslaved workers who worked on the White House and the Capitol Building, check out the map below. Through genealogical research, this map tracks the general location of the slave owners and helps visualize where the enslaved people traveled from to work in the District.

This map illustrates the movement of enslaved laborers who were sent to Washington, D.C. to build the White House and the Capitol Building. Because the capital did not have a large population at the onset of the initial construction, the commissioners hired out enslaved people from a variety of slave owners in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. By conducting genealogical research, this map tracks the general location of the slave owners and where the enslaved people would have traveled from to work in the District. Although some locations are exact, most are estimated based on county and church and census records. This research is ongoing. If you have any additional information about anyone on this map, please reach out to SPN@whha.org.

While available genealogical information reveals more about the slave owner than the enslaved workers, sometimes it is possible to glean additional pieces of information about the lives of the enslaved. This is certainly the case with the Brent sisters: Eleanor, Elizabeth, Mary, Jane, and Teresa. These women each appear in records related to the commissioners’ proceedings. A receipt dated July 7, 1796, from a cobbler named Delphey lists each of the Brent sisters and the shoes made for their enslaved people. According to this receipt, Eleanor fitted Charles and David; Elizabeth fitted Gabe and Henry; Jane fitted Silvester; and Teresa fitted Nace for new shoes.18 This receipt provides an example of the terms of the short-term contract agreements for the enslaved. While the commissioners were responsible for providing payment to slave owners like the Brent sisters for the labor of their enslaved people, the slave owners were responsible for providing the clothing. The example of the Brent sisters shows how slave owners fulfilled the clothing obligation of their contract with the commissioners. Most enslaved people working on federal building projects probably did not have many items of clothing. Receiving a new pair of shoes in the midst of construction must have been incredibly valuable.

The lives of Charles, David, Gabe, Henry, Silvester, Nace, and Girard, another enslaved man owned by the fifth sister, Mary Brent, can be further fleshed out through the examination of a will left by the Brent sisters’ father, Robert Brent. Robert Brent was a wealthy landowner from Charles County, Maryland. When he died in 1790, his Brentfield estate in Charles County, “near the head of the Wicomico River” was passed on to his daughters for their own use until they married. He also listed the names of enslaved people left to each of his daughters. These names match up very closely to the names of the individuals that appear in the commissioners’ records as belonging to the Brent sisters. According to the will, Eleanor received “Negroes Davy, Charity, and Sall.” The Davy listed here is likely the same David that received new shoes six years later in 1796. The same is true for the remaining Brent sisters. Elizabeth inherited Gab (likely Gabe) and Henry (likely Harry); Mary inherited Gerrard (likely Girrard); Jane inherited Sylvester (likely Silvester); and Teresa inherited Nace. It is extraordinarily unusual to find documentation like this will confirming the ownership of enslaved individuals. It is likely that Robert Brent’s daughters hired out the enslaved people left to them in their father’s will to earn extra income in the wake of his death. This example is also unique because many people assume that all slave owners were men. Although they appear less frequently than men in records and their ownership is more difficult to trace, it is important to recognize that some women also actively owned enslaved people and cashed in on the building boom in Washington, D.C.19

This payroll from August 1795 shows the payroll for enslaved sawyers working at the President's House; Simon, Jerry, Jef, Charles, Len, Dick, Bill, and Jim. Enslaved workers were typically noted in the payrolls with an "N" or "Negro" to indicate their status.

National Archives and Records Administration

According to ongoing research, there is only one example of an enslaved person with a listed last name: Catherine Green. Catherine Green is also unique because she is the only known enslaved woman listed in the commissioners' records. A short note in the records for December 2, 1795, states the following: “pay to Barton Ennis for use of Catherine Green negro hire.” Unfortunately, even with a last name, it is difficult to determine more information about either Catherine Green or her owner, Barton Ennis. The closest record comes from the 1800 census where a “Bartin Ennis” was listed living in Georgetown with one enslaved individual. It is possible this enslaved person was Catherine Green.20

In some cases, enslaved people worked alongside their slave owners, like the enslaved laborers of Bennett Fenwick. Fenwick was a contractor who worked with the commissioners on various federal construction projects. Born sometime before 1765 in Charles County, Maryland, Fenwick died in the District of Columbia in 1801 and likely lived in the city during its construction.21 Surviving documentation indicates that he hired out enslaved men: Harry, Joe, John, Luke, and Tom. According to Arnebeck, the commissioners asked Fenwick in 1792 to take “up to six hands” to fix stone at the quarries, meaning that they covered stone with seashells for shipment to prevent the stone from absorbing moisture. He brought three of his enslaved workers—Harry, Joe, and Tom—with him on this particular occasion. It is also known that Fenwick was an enslaver. In 1800, he advertised to buy or hire ten or fifteen enslaved men and five boys between the ages of fourteen and seventeen. Fenwick either purchased or hired out these enslaved people to work with him, digging clay for the production of bricks and likely terminating their contracts or selling them when the work was complete.22

Arnebeck also highlights another interesting note about Fenwick. At one point, another brick-making contractor named John Mitchell heard that Fenwick planned “to bring smallpox to the city” to inoculate members of his family against the disease. Soon, a group of enslaved laborers heard about the inoculation and approached the commissioners, asking to be inoculated against smallpox. The commissioners agreed and sent ten enslaved people to the doctor for the procedure, deducting the cost of the inoculation from their pay. One record for an enslaved man named Emmanuel indicates that the procedure cost his owner, Alexander Scott, seventeen shillings and six pence. Inoculation was a gamble for the commissioners. On one hand, it could prevent disease from spreading through the work force which otherwise would bring construction to a halt. On the other hand, inoculation usually gave the patient a mild form of the illness. The patient needed several days to recover, causing an unfortunate delay for the commissioners. That year, they promised slave owners that they would refrain from deducting wages for illness.23

This payroll from May 1795 lists five enslaved people: Tom, Peter, Ben, Harry and Daniel. Tom, Peter, Ben, and Harry were owned by White House architect James Hoban. Daniel was owned by Hoban’s assistant, Pierce Purcell. In many payrolls related to federal construction projects, the enslaved person is listed either listed only by their first name, with their owner’s last name, or with a mark like “N” to indicate their enslaved status. Their owner typically signed for their wages on the opposite side of the payroll, allowing researchers and historians to learn about their enslavement. White wage laborers usually signed for themselves.

The National Archives and Records Administration

Like Fenwick, White House architect James Hoban also hired out his enslaved workers. Payrolls listing carpenters working on the President’s House from 1794 to 1797 list four enslaved individuals belonging to James Hoban: Ben, Daniel, Harry, and Peter. This record is one of the few instances of enslaved people working as craftsmen. Ben, Daniel, and Harry each made the same wage as white adolescents apprenticed to the carpenters while Peter earned a “shilling or two” less than the free white carpenters. While the arrangement was unusual, since Hoban held significant influence, the commissioners likely let him employ the people he wanted on the project. Later, in November 1797, the commissioners ordered “that after the expiration of the present month no Negro Carpenters or apprentices be hired at either of the public buildings.” By this point funds were tight, Hoban’s influence had waned, and the commissioners were likely upset to discover that some of Hoban’s enslaved carpenters were making a similar wage to the white apprentice carpenters. At any rate, Hoban did not protest the order.24

During the final days of White House construction, labor forces—both enslaved and free—were drastically cut by the commissioners. By this point, the exterior was largely finished, and free white carpenters furiously worked to finish the interiors. The final known receipt for a payment to a slave owner occurred on June 7, 1800, when the commissioners paid $19.74 to a slave owner named Joseph Queen for the use of enslaved sawyers. Throughout construction, Queen hired out enslaved laborers named Anthony, Joseph, Moses, Tom, and Walter.25 Although major White House construction concluded around the time President John Adams moved into the home, enslaved labor was used again for the rebuild after the British burned the White House on August 24, 1814.

Additional research into the lives of the enslaved individuals that built and rebuilt the White House is ongoing, as historians hope to learn more about the identities and life experiences of known and unknown enslaved people. If you have any additional information about any of the enslaved individuals listed here or any other enslaved people associated with White House construction, please reach out to the White House Historical Association’s Slavery in the President’s Neighborhood initiative at SPN@whha.org.

Thank you to Bob Arnebeck, author of Slave Labor in the Capital: Building Washington’s Iconic Federal Landmarks and Through a Fiery Trial: Building Washington 1790-1800. Explore Arnebeck's research further on his website here.

This article was originally published January 3, 2020

Footnotes & Resources

  1. If you are looking for more specific information about the construction of the White House and in-depth accounts, see Bob Arnebeck’s Through a Fiery Trial: Building Washington 1790-1800, Robert J. Kapsch’s Building Washington: Engineering and Construction of the New Federal City 1790-1840, William Seale’s A White House of Stone: Building America’s First Ideal in Architecture, or Jane Hollenbeck Conner’s Birthstone of the White House and Capitol.
  2. Lina Mann, “The Complexities of Slavery in the Nation’s Capital,” The White House Historical Association, Accessed December 9, 2019, https://www.whitehousehistory.org/the-complexities-of-slavery-in-the-nations-capital.
  3. Chris Myers Asch and George Derek Musgrove, Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017), 25; Kenneth R. Bowling, Peter Charles L’Enfant: Vision, Honor, and Male Friendship in the Early American Republic, (George Washington University, 2002), vii. Although historians have typically referred to L’Enfant by his French name, Pierre, historian Kenneth Bowling has discovered that L’Enfant preferred to use the name Peter Charles L’Enfant when he arrived to the United States.
  4. The land upon which the White House now stands was owned by a stubborn planter and slave owner named David Burnes. President George Washington once referred to him as “The Obstinate Mr. Burns” in a 1791 letter to Thomas Jefferson. At first, Burnes stubbornly refused to sell his land, and then, even after agreeing to sell, gave more demands to the president and the appointed commissioners responsible for constructing the Federal City. To learn more about this land deal and the impact of slavery on the region prior to 1790, see Before the White House.
  5. William Seale, The President’s House, (The White House Historical Association, 2008), 27-29; William Seale, “James Hoban: Builder of the White House,” White House History 22 (Spring 2008): 8-9. Thomas Jefferson promoted the idea of a national design competition, modeling it after similar contests in Europe. Jefferson also submitted a design for the President’s House, which ultimately was not chosen.
  6. “Cornerstone of the White House Laid,” Library of Congress, Accessed December 9, 2019, https://www.loc.gov/item/today-in-history/october-13/; William Seale, President’s House, 34-36. The cornerstone of the White House has not been seen since its installation in 1792. Many have searched for it over the years. However, even the extensive Truman Renovation (1948-1952) failed to reveal the whereabouts of the cornerstone.
  7. Jane Hollenbeck Conner, Birthstone of the White House and Capitol, (Virginia Beach: The Donning Company Publishers, 2010), 59-64; William Seale, White House of Stone: Building America’s First Ideal in Architecture, (The White House Historical Association, 2017), 4-5, 26.
  8. Although the commissioners authorized a quarry superintendent named William Wright to hire up to twenty men to work in the quarry for monthly wages on April 10, 1792, by December 1792, the commissioners were unsatisfied with both the poor cut and quality of the stone and the cost of production. Evidently, the commissioners believed that Wright should have utilized enslaved labor to keep overall costs down. Wright defended his actions in a December letter to the commissioners: “Has there not always been stone already?” Soon after, the commissioners ordered the hiring of twenty-five enslaved men to work in the quarries on a contract basis. Robert J. Kapsch, The Labor History of the Construction and Reconstruction of the White House, 1793-1817, Dissertation, University of Maryland College Park, 1993, 111, 151; Bob Arnebeck, Through a Fiery Trial: Building Washington 1790-1800, (New York: Madison Books, 1991), 138, n639.
  9. Kapsch, 197-198.
  10. Bob Arnebeck, Slave Labor in the Capital: Building Washington’s Iconic Federal Landmarks, (Charleston, South Carolina: The History Press, 2014, 161.
  11. “Volume 1; Proceedings: April 12, 1791-July 31, 1795,” Record Group 42: Records of the District of Columbia Commissioners and of the Offices Concerned with Public Buildings, 1791-1867, The National Archives and Records Administration, Microfilm publication 371 roll 1.
  12. Arnebeck, Slave Labor in the Capital, 11-15; Asch and Musgrove, 35.
  13. Arnebeck, Slave Labor in the Capital, 159-161. Historian Bob Arnebeck located these names within several record groups housed at the National Archives and Records Administration. At no point did the commissioners compile a full list of names related to enslaved labor. Commissioner proceedings, records, and letters exist in Record Group 42. However, many of the records revealing the identities of enslaved laborers exist in Record Groups 39 and 217. Payroll records do not exist prior to 1794, rendering most names related to construction from 1792-1793 lost to history.
  14. Arnebeck, Slave Labor in the Capital, 25.
  15. Ibid, 160.
  16. “George Fenwick in the 1800 United States Federal Census,” Ancestry, Accessed December 11, 2019, https://search.ancestry.com/cg...
  17. "George Fenwick,” Early Colonial Settlers of Southern Maryland and Virginia’s Northern Neck Counties, Accessed December 11, 2019, https://www.colonial-settlers-...
  18. Arnebeck, Slave Labor in the Capital, 139.
  19. Women often appear less frequently in census records because men were listed as the head of household more often. Therefore, it can sometimes be difficult to trace a women’s ownership of enslaved individuals, unless she was listed as the head of the household. It is sometimes possible to glean information about a woman’s slave ownership through her husband’s records, but it provides an incomplete picture. “Robert Brent,” Early Colonial Settlers of Southern Maryland and Virginia’s Northern Neck Counties, Accessed December 11, 2019, https://www.colonial-settlers-md-va.us/getperson.php?personID=I017681&tree=Tree1.
  20. “Bartin Ennis in the 1800 United States Census,” Ancestry, Accessed December 11, 2019, https://search.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/sse.dll?indiv=1&dbid=7590&h=55057&tid=&pid=&usePUB=true&_phsrc=NHY167&_phstart=successSource.
  21. “Bennett Fenwick,” Early Colonial Settlers of Southern Maryland and Virginia’s Northern Neck Counties, Accessed December 11, 2019, https://www.colonial-settlers-md-va.us/getperson.php?personID=I079284&tree=Tree1.
  22. Arnebeck, Slave Labor in the Capital, 69, 116, 126.
  23. Ibid, 139.
  24. Ibid, 107-109.
  25. Ibid, 145, 161.

You Might Also Like