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Construction on the President's House began in 1792 in Washington, D.C., a new capital situated in sparsely settled region far from a major population center. The decision to place the capital on land ceded by two pro-slavery states-Virginia and Maryland-ultimately influenced the acquisition of laborers to construct its public buildings. The D.C. commissioners, charged by Congress with building the new city under the direction of the president, 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—both enslaved and free—to provide the bulk of labor that built the White House, the United States Capitol, and other early government buildings.

Learn More about our Slavery in the President's Neighborhood Initiative.

A slave coffle passing the Capitol grounds, 1815, published in A Popular History of the United States, 1876.

Library of Congress

Stonemason Collen Williamson trained enslaved people on the spot at the government's quarry at Aquia, Virginia. Enslaved people quarried and cut the rough stone that was later dressed and laid by Scottish masons to erect the walls of the President's House. The slaves joined a work force that included local white laborers and artisans from Maryland and Virginia, as well as immigrants from Ireland, Scotland, and other European nations.

This May 1795 payroll lists the carpenters who worked on the President’s House. The government did not own slaves, but officials did hire out enslaved laborers from their owners. Slave carpenters Peter, Ben, Daniel, and Harry were noted as owned by James Hoban.

National Archives and Records Administration

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