Black Press Business/Economic Feature Week of August 4, , 2016
Is The First Lady Right About Who Built the White House?
“For too long, the sacrifice of men and women who built these temples of democracy were overlooked; their toil forgotten; their story ignored or denied, and their voices silenced in history’s pages.”
Where do you come down on the issue of slavery? In her address to the Democratic National Convention Michelle Obama created “a firestorm” across America saying: “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.” The FLOTUS’ statement in was met with derision and disbelief by some who questioned its validly as well as asserting that Mrs. Obama’s choice to mention it amounted to an attempt “to divide the country along racial lines.”
Mrs. Obama’s comment was met with disregard across social media in arguments that the White House was built with the assistance of White people too. Mainstream media mavens called it “race baiting.” White conservatives as well as liberals recoiled from the comments calling her “unpatriotic.”
Our nation’s first lady, like a majority of African Americans has enslaved ancestors in her family tree. Instead of strongly voicing “They owe our family for my ancestors’ uncompensated work”, some Blacks have enjoined rhetoric with “the fact-checkers” as to whether slaves did build the White House.
Our nation’s White House was built on Native American “donated” land, by two slave states, Maryland and Virginia, to become a district and capital in which slavery was law. Between 1790 and 1863, Black artisans comprised half the District’s workforce. Without question, America’s Capitol City was built on the backs of Black slaves. Washington, D.C., was built on landed ceded to the federal government by Virginia and Maryland, and at the time the Potomac region was home to almost half of the country’s 750,000 slaves. Slaves cleared the trees and brush for the Mall and wide Washington streets. Captured Africans were “likely involved in all aspects of construction, including carpentry, masonry, carting, rafting, plastering, glazing and painting and the bulk of the grueling work of sawing logs and stones as Washington was being built. . A 1790s U.S. Treasury Department note is illustrative of Washington being built: "Pay to John Hurie the balance due for the hire of Negro Emanuel for the year 1794." Note that payee Hurie was being compensated for Emanuel’s labor. Enslavers like Hurie received $5 a week for each of his slaves’ labors, do Hurie’s descendants owe Emanuel’s descendents any of their inheritances from his estate?
Government’s debt to Blacks is long pending. Enslavement of Blacks lasted 246 years; followed by a century of legal racial segregation and discrimination. These times in America constitute the world’s longest running crime against humanity. Who among us can say that the U.S. government doesn’t need to compensate descendants of African slaves for that crime slavery and its continuing legacy? America’s Blacks have been consigned to the economic bottom. First it was “free labor” then it was no labor, either way a static economic gap has existed for Blacks since the Emancipation Proclamation.
Why is it that contemporary Blacks don’t demand slavery compensation? The idea of a primal debt was patently obvious to Martin Luther King Jr. “for the crimes of slavery and all the forms of racism that succeeded it.” With the Obamas having just six months left in the White House people who still feel they are owed a debt should press their case for reparations with the First Family. The United Nations says America perpetuated “a crime against humanity” and owes uncompensated Blacks. Before she leaves 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, let’s ask the lady of that house pay special tribute to the Blacks who constructed it.
Blacks need to envisage the centuries-old debt owed them being addressed once and for all. Blacks could ask that President Barack Obama issue an Executive Order that establishes a “reparatory justice” commission before he’s no longer POTUS. Black families could reap a million dollars from just reparations and should demand more from Obama and people they’ve put into office to make that reward happen. Blacks need the Congress to pass H.R. 40, to study the effects of slavery.
William Reed is publisher of “Who’s Who in Black Corporate America” and available for projects via Busxchng@his.com