Slaves Helped Build White House

Monday, July 31st 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — The slaves who helped build Washington left their mark in the stones they quarried and the walls they raised for two citadels of liberty: the White House and the Capitol.

Legislation is moving through Congress to examine the historical record of their work and consider ways to honor those known in the documents of the time only by first names such as Davy, Newton, Moses, Gabriel or Nace.

The sponsors, Reps. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., and John Lewis, D-Ga., have hopes of a monument on the Capitol grounds — or perhaps a commemorative postage stamp — marking the contribution of the slaves to the building of the capital city.

``Any efforts to notice the work of African Americans as slaves and freemen are appropriate,'' said Rep. James E. Clyburn, D-S.C.

Slaves were the largest locally available labor pool in 1790 when Congress ordered a new capital to be carved out of two slave-owning states, Virginia and Maryland.

When the three commissioners in charge of construction started building in 1792 they hired field hands from local small farmers and planters.

In the following eight years, the commissioners also employed skilled labor wherever it could be found, recruiting stone masons, for example, from Edinburgh, Scotland.

But for the heavy, dirty work of city building, local slaves were available to be rented from their owners cheaply, an average of $55 a year.

The owners supplied clothing and blankets. The city commissioners made sleeping space available in a barracks and provided food: cornmeal, pork or beef, and shad in season.

Many white laborers worked under similar conditions and ate the same food, but their employment was voluntary and they could keep the money they earned.

Local historian Bob Arnebeck, in his 1991 book, ``Through a Fiery Trial, Building Washington, 1790-1800,'' wrote that as work began, slaves served as axmen, cutting trees on Jenkins Hill on which the new Capitol would stand. Some helped square logs needed for construction. Others cleared trees and stumps from the new streets laid out by city planner Pierre L'Enfant.

In 1796, according to Arnebeck, 21 slaves were cutting timber for the president's house while 18 white laborers cut logs for the Capitol.

Other slaves worked in the brickyards and stone quarries in which sandstone was cut for both the Capitol and the White House.

Slaves assisted the masons laying stone for the walls of the two major public buildings. The number of workers used at any one time varied, depending on the work to be done and the money available.

In the fall of 1794, five slave carpenters worked with 15 white carpenters at the president's house.

Slavery continued to be a fact of life in Washington for more than 60 years. Slaves worked as domestic servants at the White House in several administrations.

The city became a thriving slave-trading center, and visitors from the North and from abroad often voiced shock at witnessing slaves being led past the Capitol.

Sen. John Randolph of Virginia remarked in the 1820s that there was never ``so great, so infamous a slave market, as in the seat of the government of this nation which prides itself on freedom.''

The irony grew even sharper when the Capitol was expanded in the late 1850s and slaves were put to work to help cast the statue of Armed Freedom destined for the top of the new dome.

But some of those slaves were to be free shortly.

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation emancipating the slaves of the District of Columbia.

It was a forerunner of the Emancipation Proclamation, which signaled the coming end of slavery everywhere in the United States.


EDITOR'S NOTE — Lawrence L. Knutson has covered the White House, Congress and Washington's history for more than 30 years.