It has never been a closely held secret that enslaved African people were a vital component of the workforce that built the White House and the United States Capitol. But the role of enslaved people in the building of great national symbols has generally been overlooked, or, at times, purposely obscured.
This role had been so widely ignored that when First Lady Michelle Obama made reference to enslaved people building the White House in her speech at the Democratic National Convention in July 2016, many people questioned the statement. Yet what the First Lady had said was accurate.
If the idea of enslaved people building symbols of freedom such as the White House and Capitol seems controversial in the modern era, in the 1790s no one would have thought much of it. The new federal city of Washington was to be built on land surrounded by the states of Maryland and Virginia, both of which had economies that depended on the labor of enslaved people.
The new city was being constructed on the site of farmland and forests. Countless trees needed to be cleared and a number of inconvenient hills needed to be leveled. When the new public buildings in the new city began to rise, massive amounts of stone had to be transported to construction sites. Besides all the grueling physical labor, skilled carpenters, quarry workers, and masons would be required.
The practice of stealing labor in that environment would have been considered utterly ordinary. That is probably why there are so few accounts of Washington’s enslaved people and exactly what jobs they performed. The National Archives holds records that document that the enslavers were paid for the work performed in the 1790s. But the records are sparse and only list enslaved people by first names and by the names of their enslavers.
Where Did the Enslaved People In Early Washington Come From?
From the existing pay records, it’s apparent that the enslaved people who worked on the White House and the Capitol were generally controlled by landowners from nearby Maryland. In the 1790s there were a number of large estates in Maryland worked by labor stolen from enslaved people, so it would not have been difficult to “hire” enslaved people to come to the site of the new federal city. At that time, some counties of southern Maryland adjacent to the new federal city would have contained more enslaved people than free people.
During most of the years of construction of the White House and Capitol, from 1792 to 1800, the commissioners of the new city would have “hired” about 100 enslaved people. Recruiting the enslaved people may have been a fairly casual situation of simply relying on established contacts.
Researchers have noted that one of the commissioners responsible for building the new city, Daniel Carroll, was a cousin of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, and a member of one of Maryland’s most politically connected families. And some enslavers who were paid for the labor of their enslaved workers had connections to the Carroll family. So it’s conceivable that Daniel Carroll simply contacted people he knew and arranged to hire enslaved people from their farms and estates.
What Work Was Performed By Enslaved People?
There were several phases of work that needed to be done. Firstly, there was a need for ax men, workers skilled at felling trees and clearing land. The plan for the city of Washington called for an elaborate network of streets and wide avenues, and the work of clearing timber had to be done fairly precisely.
It’s likely that the people enslaved by owners of large estates in Maryland would have had considerable experience at clearing land. So finding people who were quite competent would not have been difficult.
The next phase included moving timber and stone from forests and quarries in Virginia. Much of that work was probably done by enslaved people, laboring miles from the site of the new city. When the building material was brought to the site of present-day Washington, D.C., by barges, it would have been transported to the building sites on heavy wagons, which may have been tended to enslaved teamsters.
The skilled masons working on the White House and Capitol were probably helped by “tending masons,” who would have been semi-skilled workers. Many of them were probably enslaved, though it’s believed that both free white people and enslaved African people worked at those jobs.
A later phase of construction required a considerable number of carpenters to frame and finish the insides of the buildings. Temporary sawmills would have been built near the major building sites, and the sawing of large amounts of lumber was also likely done by enslaved workers.
When the work on the buildings was finished, it’s assumed that the enslaved people returned to the estates where they had come from. Some of the workers might have only worked for a single year, or a few years, before returning to the enslaved populations on Maryland estates.
The role of the enslaved people who worked on the White House and Capitol was essentially hidden in plain sight for many years. The records existed, but as it was an ordinary work arrangement at the time, no one would have found it unusual. And as most early presidents were enslavers, the idea of enslaved people being associated with the president’s house would have seemed ordinary.
After the White House and the Capitol were burned by British troops in 1814, both buildings had to be rebuilt. It’s likely that labor stolen from enslaved people was also used during that phase of construction.
The lack of recognition for those enslaved people has been addressed in recent years. A commemorative marker citing the importance of enslaved African people in the building of the Capitol was unveiled in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center on February 28, 2012. The marker features a block of Aquia Creek sandstone which had been a part of the original east front portico of the Capitol. (The block had been removed from the building during subsequent renovations.) The block of stone is displayed to show tool marks left by original workmen, an indication of the labor of enslaved people that went into shaping the stone used in the construction.
By Robert McNamara