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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

Slavery in the President's Neighborhood FAQ

This article is part of the Slavery in the President’s Neighborhood initiative. Explore the Timeline

Slave or Enslaved?—A Note On Language

You may be wondering about the terms used in the Slavery in the President’s Neighborhood initiative because they may be different from what you have previously heard. Although there is debate among historians about the best way to discuss those forced to participate in the institution of slavery, today most are choosing to use the term “enslaved” rather than “slave.” The word “slave” is a noun. Due to the historical implications of slavery, the word often reduces the enslaved person to an object. In order to reflect agency and recognition to the enslaved individual and to remind us about the violence and inhumanity of slavery, “enslaved” is used wherever possible throughout this initiative. These terms help to remind us that people were forced into bondage against their will and that they deserve to be recognized as individuals rather than by their legal status.

Q: Did enslaved people help build the White House?

A: Enslaved laborers helped in every stage of building construction, from the initial quarrying and transportation of stone to the construction of the Executive Mansion. They worked alongside craftsmen, white wage laborers, and other free African-American wage laborers. Learn more here.

Q: Did enslaved people help rebuild the White House after the British burned it down in 1814?

A: Enslaved laborers were involved in the reconstruction of the White House. Evidence suggests that there were fewer enslaved workers involved in the reconstruction than the initial construction of 1792-1800.

Q: Which U.S. presidents relied on enslaved labor at the White House?

A: 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.

Q: Which U.S. presidents owned enslaved people?

A: According to surviving documentation, at least thirteen 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 K. Polk, Zachary Taylor, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, and Ulysses S. Grant.

Q: What roles did enslaved people fill at the White House?

A: Enslaved individuals worked in a variety of positions in the president’s household as chefs, gardeners, stable hands, maids, butlers, lady’s maids, valets, and more.

Q: Where did enslaved people live in the White House?

A: Enslaved individuals working in the White House often slept in the attic or in the Ground Floor rooms. 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.

Q: Where did enslaved people live and work in the President’s Neighborhood?

A: Enslaved individuals in the President’s Neighborhood primarily lived in the homes of their owners. Some slept on straw mats outside of their owner’s bedrooms to provide around the clock service. Others slept on kitchen floors, above stables, or in other areas of the home. Some residences, like Decatur House on Lafayette Park, built outbuildings or additional wings on their property to provide living space for enslaved people. Today, Decatur House has one of the only existing examples of a separate slave quarters within sight of the White House.

Q: How does urban slavery differ from plantation slavery?

A: In order to plant, maintain, and harvest cash crops, most plantations relied on large numbers of enslaved laborers. However, slave owners living in urban settings typically required fewer enslaved people to manage households.

Q: What does “hiring out” an enslaved person mean?

A: Many slave owners in early Washington, D.C. chose to hire out enslaved people for contract labor positions. For example, many of the enslaved workers who helped build the White House were hired quarterly or by the year for their labor. Owners collected a wage while continuing to provide clothing, housing and some medical care. The commissioners typically provided workers with housing, two meals a day, and basic medical care. This arrangement allowed the capital to reap the benefits of labor without bearing total responsibility for the workers’ general well-being.