Place  /  Book Excerpt

How the Labor of Enslaved Black Men Built the White House

On the construction of America's new capital city.

The project’s first workshop was built later that spring in the middle of what is today Lafayette Square. Fifty feet long and twenty-four feet wide, the plank-roofed structure was raised on piers and featured large double doors at one end. Workers dubbed it the “carpenters’ hall.” Soon the workshop was filled with axes, wedges, sledgehammers, and mattocks crafted by a Georgetown blacksmith. By summer’s end, with Hoban now leading the project, enslaved men began laying the foundation for the President’s House. Thick beds of rubble were placed over layers of clay. Foundation stones followed. Cut-stone blocks marked the basement, followed by walls. Washington and Jefferson were thrilled by the progress.

By October, a great deal of land had been cleared. The project’s next phase required hundreds of skilled craftsmen, in part because Washington was adamant that the President’s House and other federal buildings have stone walls. In addition to stonemasons, the project required carpenters, joiners, and brickmakers, among other specialists. The commissioners had naively assumed that craftsmen by the hordes would be attracted by a building project as massive as the federal city. The hard truth, as Jefferson warned, was that the nation’s available craftsmen had more than enough work in such flourishing cities as Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Baltimore, and Charleston. Most had little interest in leaving behind the comforts and resources of those cities for a stripped building site containing a smattering of houses on the banks of the Potomac.

Initially the commissioners had planned on using enslaved labor for the sole purpose of digging foundations and clearing the land. But after witnessing the high-quality work the enslaved Black workers performed, the commissioners decided to greatly expand the variety of jobs assigned to them. Economics also played a role in this change in policy: Slave labor was a sustainable and cost-effective means of meeting the demand for workers. By 1793, a number of local slaveholders were profiting from the demand by hiring out their slaves. For example, slaveholder Edmund Plowden hired out Gerald, Tony, and Jack. Slaveholding sisters Elizabeth, Eleanor, Jane, Mary, and Teresa Brent hired out Charles, Davy, Gabriel, Henry, and Nance. Slaveholder Joseph Queen hired out Gerald, Tony, and Jack.

Before long, the city and surrounding areas were populated by so many Blacks, both enslaved and free, that Georgetown passed laws forbidding slaves and indentured servants from gathering in groups of larger than five, for fear that such assemblies could lead to rebellion. Punishment included thirty-nine lashes for the slave and a fine for the slaveholder.