A House That Slaves Helped Build

Full circle:

Slaves—men of West African origin branded with Christian monikers like Tom, Peter, Ben, Harry, and Daniel—helped build the White House. Three were on loan from its chief architect, James Hoban. Construction began in 1792, and slaves worked as sawyers, quarrymen, carpenters, stonemasons, brickmakers. Such was the fabric of the new republic: twelve American Presidents owned slaves, eight of them while in office.

After emancipation and the Civil War, a handful of black men won seats in Congress, but, as the spirit of Jim Crow overwhelmed the promise of Reconstruction, white supremacy regained its hold. On January 29, 1901, the last of those black congressmen, George H. White, of North Carolina, stood in the well of the House and prophesied the miracle of reconciliation and justice:

This, Mr. Chairman, is perhaps the Negroes’ temporary farewell to the American Congress but let me say Phoenix-like he will rise up some day and come again. These parting words are on behalf of an outraged, heart-broken, bruised and bleeding, but God-fearing people. . . . The only apology I have for the earnestness with which I have spoken is that I am pleading for the life, the liberty, the future happiness, and manhood suffrage for one-eighth of the entire population of the United States.

On January 20th, an African-American family will take occupancy of the White House. The incoming President’s father was Kenyan, his mother a Kansan. The future First Lady’s great-great-grandfather Jim Robinson worked as a slave on the Friendfield Plantation, in Georgetown, South Carolina, and is thought to be buried there in an unmarked grave. The election of Barack Hussein Obama represents the culmination of the processes predicted by Representative White, forces that accelerated with the rise, in 1955, of the Second Reconstruction––the civil-rights movement––and the election and the appointment thereafter of hundreds of African-Americans to public office. It is cause not for self-congratulation but for celebration nonetheless. There are many things that the Inauguration of Barack Obama will not mean—the complete eradication of racial prejudice; the disappearance of injustices of history still made manifest in the everyday statistics of employment, education, and incarceration––but it can only instill in the American people a sense of possibility and progress.

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