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Jesse Holland on How Slaves Built the White House and the U.S. Capitol

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Later today, the first African-American president in U.S. history, Barack Obama, and wife Michelle and two daughters, Malia and Sasha, will be taking up residence in the White House, a house built by slaves. The U.S. Capitol, too, was built by slaves, as was the U.S. Supreme Court. Last night, I spoke with Associated Press reporter Jesse Holland. He is author of Black Men Built the Capitol: Discovering African-American History In and Around Washington, D.C. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Vice President-elect Joe Biden also spoke at Sunday’s pre-inaugural concert. That was, rather, the Lincoln Memorial. He also spoke right there. In his address, he spoke about the historic monuments and structures surrounding the crowd in Washington, D.C. and paid homage to those who built them.

    VICE PRESIDENT-ELECT JOE BIDEN: As I traveled across this land, I see a country built by men and women who believe in the dignity of work, who take pride in providing for their families and measure their lives by the honest efforts they have made. Look around you. Look at the grace and grandeur that surrounds us, and you’ll see the work of American hands: the memorials, the fountains, the marble domes, and the soaring towers, representing the majesty of a great nation, all built, stone by stone, by American men and women. And let me tell you, we owe them. We owe them the chance to go to work each day knowing they have the thanks of a grateful nation.

AMY GOODMAN: What Vice President-elect Joe Biden didn’t mention is that many of those buildings were built by slaves. Indeed, as the first African American president in US history, Barack Obama and his wife Michelle and two daughters, Malia and Sasha, will be taking up residence in the White House, a house built by slaves. Michelle Obama and her daughters are descendants of slaves. The Capitol, too, was built by slaves, as was the Supreme Court.

Last night, I spoke with AP reporter Jesse Holland. He’s the author of Black Men Built the Capitol: Discovering African-American History In and Around Washington, D.C.

    JESSE HOLLAND: Standing out there in front of the US Capitol will be Barack Obama, who will become the most powerful man in the United States, an African American president. But he is going to be standing in front of a building that was created and built by some of the least powerful people in the United States: African American slaves.

    Through research, we’ve been able to determine that just about 400 of the more than 600 people who worked on the construction of the Capitol were African American slaves. Maybe another fifty or so were African American freedmen. These are people who had their papers to signify that they were free. So the entire building, the center of democracy in the United States, was created by African American slaves.

    AMY GOODMAN: And the documents that prove this?

    JESSE HOLLAND: The reason why we know this for a fact is because the federal government rented slaves from plantations in Virginia, Maryland and in the District of Columbia. The government had to write receipts for the use of these slaves, and those receipts still exist at the National Archives in the Library of Congress. Through meticulous searching through those archives, we’ve been able to determine, almost precisely, that just about 400 of the workers who created the US Capitol were slaves.

    AMY GOODMAN: The year?

    JESSE HOLLAND: This was in the — the construction of the Capitol began in the early 1700s, and it finished directly before the Civil War. Actually, one of the better stories comes at that time directly before the Civil War. To complete the Capitol, they wanted to put a statue on top of the Capitol Dome, and an American art student in Paris wins the competition and creates the Statue of Freedom, a statue that today sits on top of the Dome. He takes a picture of the statue, and he sends it back to the United States, and it wins the competition.

    But the person in charge of the construction of the Capitol at that time was the secretary of war, Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, who would go on to be the president of the Confederacy. Well, when Jefferson Davis saw the picture of the Statue of Freedom, he threatened to cancel the entire project. The reason why is because Thomas Crawford, the art student who created the Statue of Freedom, had placed on top of the Statue of Freedom what was called a liberty cap. Well, Jefferson Davis was a student of Roman history, and he knew what a liberty cap signified. What a liberty cap tells the world is that that person wearing the liberty cap is a freed slave. So what Thomas Crawford wanted to put on top of the Capitol was a statue of a freed slave. But when Jefferson Davis sees this, he goes ballistic. He says he is not going to put a picture — a statue of a freed slave on top of the US Capitol. And he tells Thomas Crawford that “you either change the statue, or we’re going to cancel the entire project.”

    Well, Crawford is an art student, and he needed the commission money. But the only thing he did was he took off the liberty cap and put on an American eagle helmet. So when most people look at that Statue of Freedom, when they see the Statue of Freedom behind Barack Obama on Inauguration Day, most people are going to think that that’s a statue of a Native American. No, it’s actually a statue of a freed slave with an American eagle helmet on top.

    AMY GOODMAN: Who was Philip Reid?

    JESSE HOLLAND: That same story continues. Philip Reid was an African American slave from Charleston, South Carolina. He was brought up to Washington, D.C. by his master, Clark Mills, who was a famous ironworker in Washington, D.C. We know Clark Mills today, because he was commissioned and created the statue of General Lafayette that sits in front of the White House, which is why the park in front of the White House is known as Lafayette Park. Well, he buys Philip Reid out of Charleston, South Carolina and brings him up to Washington, D.C. Clark Mills gets the contract to bronze the Statue of Freedom.

    Well, when Thomas Crawford finally gets the completed finished designs for the Statue of Freedom, he creates a life-size model out of plaster. He takes apart this plaster model into five different pieces, and he puts it on a ship for America. Now, unfortunately, Thomas Crawford dies before the statue reaches American shores. But luckily, he had put on that ship with the Statue of Freedom an Italian workman, whose only job was to take these five pieces of the statue apart and put the pieces back together and not break them, because they were made out of plaster. Well, the statue comes across the Atlantic, up the Potomac, and is put together in the space between the Capitol and where the Supreme Court is now. And people from all around Washington, D.C. come to the Capitol, and they see this plaster model, this eighty-foot plaster model of what the Statue of Freedom is going to look like. And everyone goes, “Ooh! Aah! What a wonderful statue!”

    Well, it’s at this point the Italian workman has an idea. He tells the Capitol commissioners that the person who created this statue is dead. So you can’t make another copy of it. There’s only one person on this entire continent who knows how to take this plaster statue apart without breaking it, and that’s him. So he tells the government that if they don’t pay him three times his agreed-upon wages, he’s going to refuse to take the statue back apart. Well, the government didn’t take well to that ultimatum. So they decided that they would just let that statue sit on the ground between the Capitol and the Supreme Court.

    Well, Clark Mills had won the contract to bronze the Statue of Freedom, so he really needed to get that statue, that plaster model apart without breaking it. So he asked around, and the only person who had the skills to take that plaster statue apart was Philip Reid. What he did was he tied a rope to the top of the statue, and he threw the rope over the top of a tall tree, and he put three or four strong men at the end of the rope and told them to pull. As the statue slowly rose off the ground, the four separators between the five pieces opened just a crack, and they were able to see inside the statue and figure out how to take it apart without breaking it. So, if not for an African American slave named Philip Reid, the Statue of Freedom might still be sitting on the ground between the Capitol and the Supreme Court.

    But the story doesn’t even end there. Clark Mills gets those five pieces of the Statue of Freedom out to his foundry in Bladensburg, Maryland. Now, his job was to get this statue bronzed by the time construction on the Capitol was complete. So he had a deadline. The controversy with the Italian workman had lost him a lot of time off of his schedule. So it’s now a rush job. So that’s when the foreman of the foundry, of Clark Mill’s foundry, has an idea. He says, “Mr. Mills, you now have to get this job done quickly, and you have to get it done right. And the only person who could run this foundry the way it should be run, and the only person who can get this job done the way it should be done is me. So, Mr. Mills, you’re going to pay me three times my agreed-upon salary.” So what did Clark Mills do? He fires him. And then he looks around and says, “Who can run this factory — who can run this foundry the way it should be run? Who can get this job done on time? Who can lead these ironworkers into bronzing this statue?” The only person he could find to do it correctly was, once again, Philip Reid. So an African American slave was the person put in charge of bronzing the Statue of Freedom. Now, that’s irony for you: a slave is a person in charge of bronzing the Statue of Freedom that’s going on top of the Capitol. And, well, the job was done on time and under budget.

AMY GOODMAN: Jesse Holland is an Associated Press reporter. We’re going to come back to his description of Washington, D.C. and who built it. His new book is called Black Men Built the Capitol: Discovering African-American History In and Around Washington, D.C. Stay with us.



We continue with the Associated Press reporter who joined us in studio last night to describe Washington, D.C. Jesse Holland is author of Black Men Built the Capitol: Discovering African-American History In and Around Washington D.C.

    AMY GOODMAN: Jesse Holland, before we get to the White House and who built the White House, you mentioned the Supreme Court. And you’re going to be, in the next few days, Associated Press’s Supreme Court correspondent.

    JESSE HOLLAND: That’s right.

    AMY GOODMAN: But can you tell us who built the Supreme Court?

    JESSE HOLLAND: Now, where the Supreme Court sits today used to be a building called the Old Brick Capitol. Now, the connection between African Americans and the Supreme Court is this. The slave market in Washington, D.C. was so robust before the Civil War that slave owners in the District of Columbia didn’t have enough space to keep the slaves they were buying and selling. So what they did was they rented public jail space. Now, after the War of 1812, the Capitol was burned. Congress built a new capitol in Washington, D.C. called the Old Brick Capitol. That building sat exactly where the Supreme Court is now. Well, after the Capitol was rebuilt, Congress moved back across the street into their own building, and the Old Brick Capitol was turned into a public jail. So, African American slaves were kept in jail cells on the site that the Supreme Court sits on today. The highest court in the land sits on a spot where African American slaves were kept in jail as they were waiting to be sold.

    AMY GOODMAN: Because their so-called owners rented the space?

    JESSE HOLLAND: They rented public jail space and held African American slaves in those spaces.

    AMY GOODMAN: And this auction, this market of human beings, was on what is now the National Mall?

    JESSE HOLLAND: There are several sites on the National Mall where African American slaves were bought and sold. For example, directly in between where the Department of Education sits today and where the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum is now used to be a slave market called Robey’s Tavern. Just a block or so toward the Tidal Basin from there was another one called the Yellow House.

    The reason why we know those two were there is because an African American free man from New York came down to Washington on vacation and was kidnapped and sold as a slave in the Yellow House, which was in that area between the Robey’s Tavern and — the Robey’s Tavern and the Yellow House were the two slave markets that were between the Department of Education and the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. He was sold down to New Orleans as a slave, but six years later he escaped back up north and ends up writing his autobiography, where he tells about the slave markets that were on the National Mall within sight of the US Capitol.

    They were all — you can just go all up and down the Mall. Where the National Archives sits, right on the parade route for the inauguration tomorrow, was another slave market, where African Americans were sold. On the Tidal Basin, where everyone comes in the springtime to see all the cherry blossoms, there were slave markets all in Potomac Park. So as you go all up and down the National Mall, you walk across sites where African American slaves were bought and sold.

    AMY GOODMAN: Jesse Holland, we’re about to see the First Family, the first African American family, take up residence in the White House. A house built by slaves?

    JESSE HOLLAND: A house built by African American slaves. Pierre L’Enfant, the person who designed Washington, D.C., included in his original plans a Congress house, which is the Capitol, and the President’s house, which is the White House. Pierre L’Enfant went to the city commissioners and asked them to find him some African American slaves to dig the foundation that the White House sits on today. African American slaves sawed the lumber. They baked the bricks. They quarried the marble.

    James Hoban, the actual architect of the White House, brought up with him from South Carolina some of his own personal slaves that were used in building the building. The reason why we know this is because James Hoban paid himself for the use of his own slaves on his project and wrote himself receipts. So this is why we know that these workers —-

    AMY GOODMAN: So he charged the government for their labor.

    JESSE HOLLAND: He charged the government for the labor of his own slaves on a project he was getting paid for. So this is why we know African American slaves were used outside the White House.

    African American slaves were also used inside the White House, starting from Thomas Jefferson up until just about the Civil War. African American slaves were used as domestic staff inside the White House, from their slave-owning presidents. They didn’t want to pay a White House domestic staff, so they would just bring slaves from their plantations to live inside the White House. In fact, what’s now known as the first floor of the White House used to be the basement. There used to be a slave quarters there. So where the oval diplomatic room is in the White House today, used to be slave quarters.

    AMY GOODMAN: And how did it get changed?

    JESSE HOLLAND: Well, the White House was completely burned in the War of 1812. So a lot of the original work that was done on the White House by African American slaves has been lost. Now, we believe that African American slaves were also used in the reconstruction of the White House, but we have not found any receipts to prove this. But we know they were used in the original construction. But we only believe they were used in the reconstruction after the War of 1812. We just can’t prove it.

    AMY GOODMAN: Who was Paul Jennings?

    JESSE HOLLAND: Paul Jennings. Paul Jennings was one of those slaves who actually lived inside the White House. He was the property of James Madison. Now -—

    AMY GOODMAN: President Madison.

    JESSE HOLLAND: President James Madison. Now, it’s because of Paul Jennings that we know the legend of Dolly Madison pulling down the painting of George Washington and fleeing before the British arrived is not true. Paul Jennings actually wrote an autobiography, one of the first tell-all books about White House life. And in his book, Paul Jennings says an African American slave and a white gardener, who lived and worked in the White House, were the people who actually saved the painting of George Washington from the British troops from being burned in the White House with British troops.

    Paul Jennings also was one of the instigators and one of the leaders of one of the mass — one of the largest mass slave escapes in United States history. After the Madisons — after President James Madison died, and his wife, Dolly Madison, was left behind, she sold Paul Jennings to Senator Daniel Webster. Jennings continued to live in Washington, D.C. And he was the ringleader of a group of African American slaves and African American freedmen and freedwomen who got together and found — and found about seventy African American slaves, organized them and put them on a ship called the Pearl and escaped Washington, D.C., up the Potomac toward Point Lookout, Maryland.

    Unfortunately for them, the Pearl was a wind-powered ship, and when they got to the mouth of the Potomac, the wind died. Well, they had made their escape in the dead of night. When morning came, the slave owners found out that their slaves were missing. And they got on a steam-powered ship and got after them and corralled them and caught all of these slaves in Point Lookout, Maryland, and brought them back to Washington, D.C. Well, everyone on the ship, whether they were a African American freedman or an African American slave, was sold South.

    But luckily for Paul Webster, he wasn’t on the ship. At the very last second, he decided that since he had made an agreement with Daniel Webster to work for him a certain amount of years, and perhaps then he would be able to buy his freedom, he decided that to escape would be breaking his word. So as the Pearl was getting ready to leave Washington, D.C., Paul Jennings gets off, goes back to Daniel Webster’s house, finds the letter that he had written to Senator Webster telling him his plans for escape and destroys it. So, Paul Jennings was able to escape detection in the escape of the Pearl and was one of the ringleaders in trying to buy some of those African American free families and some of the slave families back from the South after they were sent there.

    AMY GOODMAN: Thomas Jefferson?

    JESSE HOLLAND: Well, Thomas Jefferson was actually the first US president to bring slaves inside the White House here in Washington. Now, George Washington also owned slaves, and he also kept slaves in the President’s house in Philadelphia and in New York, where the government was operating from during his time. But Thomas Jefferson was the first president to actually hold slaves inside the White House. Well, he wanted the very first White House chef to be a former slave, a man —-

    AMY GOODMAN: Chef? The White House chef?

    JESSE HOLLAND: The very first White House chef to be a former slave, and that was a man by the name of James Hemings. Well, James Hemings was the brother of Sally Hemings, the alleged mistress of Thomas Jefferson.

    AMY GOODMAN: And she was enslaved by him.

    JESSE HOLLAND: She was enslaved -— his sister was enslaved by Thomas Jefferson. Well, James Hemings also used to be enslaved by Thomas Jefferson. When Jefferson originally went to Paris as an ambassador from the United States, he took James Hemings with him. So, in Paris, Hemings learned how to cook French cuisine, and he became an expert at it. So when Jefferson comes back to America, James Hemings gets the reputation of being an excellent chef at French cuisine. So not only did he cook at Monticello, he starts cooking for other plantations and eventually earns enough money to buy his freedom. Jefferson would only let him buy his freedom on one condition, and that was, James Hemings had to teach someone else at Monticello how to cook French cuisine. So he takes one of his own brothers, teaches him how to cook French cuisine, and then James Hemings buys his freedom and moves to Baltimore.

    Well, eventually, Thomas Jefferson becomes president. And he remembers the fine French food that James Hemings cooked. And he sends for him and tells him that he wants him to be the very first White House chef. Hemings says no, because at this time Thomas Jefferson is still holding the majority of James Hemings’s family in slavery. And if he had moved into the White House, James Hemings would have been the only free black man working on a staff made up of just about all African American slaves. So James Hemings tells Thomas Jefferson, “No, I refuse. I don’t want to come work for you.” So, Jefferson goes out and hires a white French chef. So, if you look at Thomas Jefferson’s original White House staff, you have one white chef, and the rest of them are African American slaves. That’s how the tradition of having black domestic workers in the White House began.

    AMY GOODMAN: And though I said that the Obamas are the first presidential family — African American presidential family, they’re not the first black family to live in the White House.

    JESSE HOLLAND: No, from the very beginning of the White House, African American slaves have lived on the White House grounds. Now, the very first president to live there, John Adams, did not hold slaves. In fact, he was a staunch abolitionist. But Thomas Jefferson comes a few years after John Adams and brings in an entire staff of African American slaves. So does James Madison. And the list just goes on and on from there. I believe twelve of the first maybe fourteen presidents to live in the White House held African American slaves there. Almost all the way up until the Civil War, when slaves were freed in the District of Columbia, African Americans worked as butlers, they worked as maids, they worked as gardeners. They worked every domestic job that we’ve been able to look at so far in the White House, except the chief management positions, which were held by white aides. But all of the other domestic jobs at the beginning of the White House were held by African American slaves, who not only worked there, they also lived there in quarters inside the White House.

    AMY GOODMAN: You write that in 1806, two of Thomas Jefferson’s slaves had a child in the White House?

    JESSE HOLLAND: The very first child to be born in the White House was a grandson —- I mean, a grandnephew of Thomas Jefferson. The second child -—

    AMY GOODMAN: This is ever — a child in the White House?

    JESSE HOLLAND: Ever, ever. The second child ever to be born inside the White House was the child of two of Thomas Jefferson’s slaves. Unfortunately, this child did not live long, because — probably because of the medical condition that slaves were kept in at that time. But the second child to ever be born inside the White House was an African American.

    AMY GOODMAN: And Sally Hemings had children by Thomas Jefferson.

    JESSE HOLLAND: But we have not been able to definitively prove that Sally Hemings was ever inside the White House. And relatives of Thomas Jefferson also dispute whether those are actually Thomas Jefferson’s children, even though Sally Hemings’s relatives say they are.

    AMY GOODMAN: And the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery?

    JESSE HOLLAND: That’s one of the greatest stories about Washington, D.C. There actually used to be an African American town right on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. When General Robert E. Lee accepted the command of the Confederate forces, he had to leave his home in Arlington, Virginia. His home was actually where Arlington National Cemetery sits today. Well, when Robert E. Lee leaves Arlington for Richmond, Virginia, the federal government confiscates his land. And the way they ensured that Robert E. Lee would never come back is they started burying Union and Confederate soldiers in Robert E. Lee’s front yard. That’s how Arlington National Cemetery got its start.

    Well, another thing the federal government did was they gave a part of that land to the freed slaves who used to work for General Lee. So these slaves took that land and started up their own town, and they called it Freedman’s Village. These slaves opened up their own hospitals. They opened up their own stores. They opened up their own schools. Eventually, the work they did was so impressive, other African American slaves who had been freed by the Civil War move up to Washington, D.C. And Freedman’s Village gets bigger and bigger and becomes more and more famous. In fact, one of the people who moved into Freedman’s Village was Sojourner Truth, the famous African American abolitionist.

    Well, the Civil War eventually ends, and Lee’s family sues the United States government for the return of their land. They fight it out in court for a while, and the government finally decides they’re going to settle. But what they did after they settled was they kicked off all of the African Americans who lived in Freedman’s Village, paid the population of the entire town $75 for it — $75,000 for all of the work they had done and then destroyed it, destroyed the entire town. They razed the homes, the churches, the schools. They destroyed everything.

    So, today, there is very little in Arlington National Cemetery to signify that Freedman’s Village was ever there, except one thing. While the government could destroy the homes, they could destroy the schools, they could destroy the churches, but one thing the government couldn’t do was dig up the people that they had already buried. So, today, in Arlington National Cemetery, if you go over to Section 27 — it’s the section that’s nearest to the Iwo Jima Memorial — you’ll see that that section is all African American and all freed slaves. If you look at the tombstones, a lot of them only have one name on them. “Here lies George.” One will say, “Here was Andrea.” One will say, “Child of John,” because some of the people, when they died, they didn’t even know who they were. But they buried them there, because, at that point, they were free citizens of the United States. Every tombstone says either “citizen” or “civilian,” because when they died, they were free men and free women.

AMY GOODMAN: Jesse Holland is author of Black Men Built the Capitol: Discovering African-American History In and Around Washington, D.C. It is January 20th, 2009. The nation is about to inaugurate the forty-fourth president of the United States, the first African American president of the United States. And then his family will move into the White House later today. They will move into the White House built by slaves. Barack Obama’s wife, Michelle Obama, and his daughters, Malia and Sasha, are descendants of slaves.


AMY GOODMAN: Bono and U2 at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial on Sunday in the pre-inaugural concert. About half-a-million people packed into the Mall between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. We are broadcasting live from Washington on this day that ends the Bush administration and inaugurates the administration of Barack Hussein Obama. I’m Amy Goodman, joined by Pulitzer Prize-winning author, poet, activist, Alice Walker. Her most recent book is We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting for: Inner Light in a Time of Darkness, she, too, a descendant of slaves.

As you listened to Jesse Holland describe the geography, the architecture, the history of this country, Alice, can you talk about your thoughts on this historic day?


Well, one of the things that I think about is how I feel that my people were actually not slaves — they were enslaved, and they were still people — and that many of them were determined to be free, no matter how many fetters were placed on their necks and legs and wrists.

It is incredibly moving to hear Jesse Holland, and I am so grateful that he has preserved this history for us, because it brings us even closer to our ancestors, the people who worked so hard to make so many things of beauty and durability and the people who worked with so much faith and hope and humor, so that today, when we look around us, we can feel more at home in this world. When you don’t have the history, there is always the possibility of not knowing whether you belong. So we know and feel that we belong when we hear him and we hear the history of our ancestors.


As we’re speaking today, Alice, outside, well, it’s expected there will be about two million people. We’re going to show live images now of the crowds outside. We’re getting reports from subway stations, from the Capitol, from many different places right now, of lines, mass lines even around the block just to get into a subway station. There are performances around the city. People are trying to get in who have tickets. And, of course, there are well over a million people who don’t have tickets, who have just come to be a part of this, which I think is very exciting, because in this TV era, when perhaps you can see it better on television, still people want to be a part. Maybe we can call it the post-couch potato age. They want to be a part of something bigger than themselves, which may point to what people will do next, actually being engaged in activism, Alice.


Well, I do. I think that people see that they can change things, that they can come together and make something very large, especially when they’re feeling individually that they’re very small and asking the question always, “What can I do? You know, I’m only one person.” But we see now that we can elect a black man as president of the United States. And, in a way, everything after that is, you know, a challenge, but it can be done.

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