After Michelle Obama said White House ‘built by slaves,’ historians celebrate their stories

“I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.”

By Christian Spencer

It was at the 2016 Democratic Convention in Philadelphia when then-first lady Michelle Obama said this famous quote: “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.”

One of the many people who was touched by that quote was Stewart McLaurin, the president of the White House Historical Association (WHHA). Obama’s words inspired Stewart and a team of historians at the WHHA to uncover and honor those enslaved people, leading to a project called the “Slavery in the President’s Neighborhood,” according to the DCist.

The WHAA can confirm that hundreds of enslaved people worked on building the White House and Capitol building, George Washington Presidential Households, and various White House expansion or redesigns from Thomas Jefferson’s tenure, James Madison’s tenure, James Monroe’s tenure, Quincy Adam’s tenure, Andrew Jackson’s tenure, Martin Van Buren’s tenure, and many more structures, per its website.

So far, historians have recorded about 300 enslaved people who either helped build the White House or worked for the 10 presidents who owned slaves while in presidential housing.

Many of the names of the enslaved people were incomplete. For instance, historians found a man named, “Bob (hired out by Benjamin Burrough).” 

McLaurin says he wants to find descendants of the enslaved workers, saying, “I would love to find a young woman in St. Louis who didn’t know that her great, great, great, great, grandfather helped build the White House.” 

“Now, I don’t know how possible that’s going to be in the end and how many actual names or descendants will result from this work. But I think that’s an important part of the work for us to undertake and to the degree we can, tell these stories about these individuals,” he added.