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  • Construction on the President’s House began in 1792. The decision to place the capital on land ceded by two states that permitted slavery—Virginia and Maryland—ultimately influenced the acquisition of laborers to construct its public buildings. The commissioners for the District of Columbia, charged by Congress to build the new city under the direction of President George Washington, initially planned to import workers from Europe to meet their labor needs. However, response to recruitment was dismal and soon they turned to African Americans—enslaved and free, but primarily enslaved—to provide the bulk of labor that built the White House, the United States Capitol, and other early government buildings. Most of these enslaved laborers were hired out from slave owners from southern Maryland, northern Virginia, and Washington, D.C. on a contract basis. The owners were responsible for providing their enslaved people with clothing, food, and medical care, while the commissioners paid wages for their labor directly to the owners.
  • A major concern in the construction of the new public buildings in the undeveloped Federal City was the acquisition of building materials, such as stone, lumber, bricks, hardware, and nails. Enslaved African-American quarrymen, sawyers, brick-makers, and carpenters fashioned raw materials into the products used to erect the White House. Enslaved people were trained on the spot at the government’s quarry at Aquia in Stafford County, Virginia, forty miles south of Washington. There, they quarried and cut the rough stone that was later dressed and laid by Scottish stonemasons to erect the walls of the President’s House.
  • Over 200 known enslaved individuals labored to build the White House and the Capitol Building, and over 100 other known enslaved people worked in presidential households.
  • Wage rolls for May 1795 list five enslaved people, Tom, Peter, Ben, Harry and Daniel, four of whom were owned by White House architect James Hoban. Daniel was owned by Hoban’s assistant, Pierce Purcell.
  • The majority of the early presidents were slave owners, and most brought their enslaved workers to the White House as a means to save money on domestic staff. The president’s salary was initially $25,000—a lot of money for the time—but all expenses for the house, including wages for the servants, were expected to come out of that amount. It was not enough to maintain the house properly, so there was no realistic way an individual president could afford to keep up the house without either enslaved staff or extensive personal wealth.
  • According to surviving documentation, at least nine presidents either brought with them or hired out enslaved individuals to work at the White House: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, James K. Polk, and Zachary Taylor.
  • According to surviving documentation, at least twelve presidents were slave owners at some point during their lives: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James Polk, Zachary Taylor, Andrew Johnson, and Ulysses S. Grant.
  • Enslaved individuals worked in a variety of positions in the president’s household, including as chefs, gardeners, stable hands, maids, butlers, lady’s maids, valets, and more.
  • Enslaved individuals working in the White House often slept in the attic or in the rooms along the Ground Floor Corridor. Their living arrangements varied by administration. Accounts suggest these spaces were uncomfortable with extreme temperature disparity. In particular, the Ground Floor level was often damp and rodent infested.
  • The first child born at the White House was born into slavery. In November 1801, Ursula Granger Hughes, a fourteen-year-old enslaved cook, arrived at the White House from Monticello to work in Thomas Jefferson’s presidential household. She gave birth to a child, likely named Asnet Hughes, in March 1802. Unfortunately, the child was in fragile health and by the late summer, the child died, and Hughes returned to Monticello.
  • Enslaved labor, as well as free labor, was also used during the 1814-1817 rebuilding of the White House following the War of 1812. Evidence suggests that there were fewer enslaved workers involved in the reconstruction than the initial construction of 1792-1800.
  • Paul Jennings (1799-1874), who was born into slavery on President James Madison’s estate at Montpelier, served as a valet, attending to the president until his death in 1836. First Lady Dolley Madison later sold Jennings and he was eventually hired out to serve in James K. Polk’s presidential household. Jennings later purchased his freedom from Daniel Webster. After meeting the terms of his agreement with Webster, Jennings became a free man and found work at the Department of the Interior. In 1865, Jennings published A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison, the first memoir about life in the White House. In his memoirs, he details the evacuation of the White House before its 1814 destruction by the British, including the preservation of Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington.
  • President Andrew Jackson brought several enslaved individuals from The Hermitage, his plantation in Tennessee, to the White House. While in the White House, Jackson also purchased an enslaved woman named Gracey Bradley, and later her sister, Louisa Bradley. Gracey worked as a seamstress and lady’s maid to President Jackson’s daughter in-law Sarah Jackson, while Louisa worked as a nurse for Sarah Jackson’s young children, Rachel and Andrew. At the end of Jackson’s presidency, Gracey and Louisa went to live at The Hermitage and married members of enslaved community. After the Civil War most of the enslaved people at The Hermitage left, but Gracey Bradley and her husband, Alfred Jackson, chose to stay. They continued living with Sarah Jackson until the 1880’s.
  • President James Buchanan’s household staff was likely entirely white. Buchanan specified that the new employees were to be British. Except for the butler, Pierre Vermereu, who was Belgian, all of the servants living under the Buchanan roof were from England, Ireland, and Wales. Some of these continued in service during Abraham Lincoln’s administration.
  • During the Lincoln administration some of Buchanan’s British-born domestic staff remained and other workers were brought from Illinois. Joining them in the White House, although she was not a member of the staff, was an African-American woman named Elizabeth Keckley (1818-1907). She was born into bondage in Dinwiddie, Virginia, and worked as a talented seamstress who bought her freedom and moved in 1860 to Washington, D.C., where she established a successful dressmaking business. Keckley became First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln’s seamstress and eventually a close friend and confidante. One of the most important 19th-century accounts of life in the Lincoln White House was Keckley’s 1868 memoir, Behind the Scenes, or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House.
  • During the Civil War, President Lincoln invited abolitionist Frederick Douglass to the White House to discuss the recruitment of African-American troops for the Union cause. On October 29, 1864, Lincoln met with Sojourner Truth, a strong advocate of abolition and women’s rights.
  • A notable African American to work at the White House during the 1860s was William Slade, who had been a messenger in the Treasury Department. According to his daughter, Slade became Abraham Lincoln’s personal messenger and friend. By 1866, Slade was a fixture at the White House, and became President Andrew Johnson’s steward. The person in this position was charged with the domestic management of the White House and responsible for the furnishings, silver, and other public property. Slade was the first African-American steward of the White House. It was a powerful and delicate position that called for the ability to communicate with politicians and officials as well as with the family and servants.

Did Slaves Build the White House?

Construction on the President’s House began in 1792. The decision to place the capital on land ceded by two states that permitted slavery—Virginia and Maryland—ultimately influenced the acquisition of laborers to construct its public buildings.

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About the white house historical association

First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy envisioned a restored White House that conveyed a sense of history through its decorative and fine arts. She sought to inspire Americans, especially children, to explore and engage with American history and its presidents. In 1961, the White House Historical Association was established to support her vision to preserve and share the Executive Mansion’s legacy for generations to come. Supported entirely by private resources, the Association’s mission is to assist in the preservation of the state and public rooms, fund acquisitions for the White House permanent collection, and educate the public on the history of the White House. Since its founding, the Association has given more than $50 million to the White House in fulfillment of its mission.

To learn more about the White House Historical Association, please visit WhiteHouseHistory.org.

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