Slave House in Washington, D.C.
Update: Bill O’Reilly offers additional comments confirming that Michelle Obama’s statements about slavery are accurate, which leaves me wondering why he needed to point it out to begin with.
Last night Bill O’Reilly used his “Tip of the Day” segment to respond directly to First Lady Michelle Obama’s address to the Democratic Party Convention in which she referenced the use of slaves to build the White House. The First Lady used the opportunity to remind her listeners of how far we’ve come as a nation and to try to impart some understanding of what it has meant for one African-American family to occupy the White House for the past eight years. Many listeners were likely surprised to hear this little tidbit of history, while others, no doubt, refused to believe it. O’Reilly’s “spin” reflects the continued difficulty of coming to terms with this aspect of our nation’s past.
O’Reilly is perfectly willing to admit that slaves were utilized to construct the White House, but he also wants his viewers to understand that free blacks and immigrants were also involved. In doing so, O’Reilly undercuts the salient economic, social, and political distinctions that defined freedom and slavery. More disturbing, however, is his employment of one of the most deeply embedded tropes in our history and memory of slavery. According to O’Reilly:
Slaves that worked there were well-fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government, which stopped hiring slave labor in 1802.
It is unclear as to the sources O’Reilly consulted in support of this claim, but we do have an account by Abigail Adams, who shortly after occupying the house in 1800 shared her thoughts about slavery in a letter to Cotton Tufts. In it Adams characterizes twelve slaves working to remove a pile of dirt from in front of the White House as “half fed, and destitute of clothing.” This was not the first time she observed such conditions in the nation’s capital. It doesn’t take much digging to uncover similar accounts and O’Reilly fails to note the work that slaves carried out on other buildings that stretched beyond 1802.
Indeed, slaves toiled in the nation’s capital for the next fifty years leading up to the American Civil War. They drove cabs, worked in barbershops and hotels and even helped with the expansion of the Capitol Dome that was still unfinished by the eve of the war. Slaves were traded legally up to 1850 while a flourishing underground trade continued for the next decade. Slavery itself remained legal until April 1862.
Michelle Obama was not simply commenting on the significance of slave labor in the construction of the White House, but about its central place in the new nation. Slavery survived those Founders, who believed that its existence conflicted with the ideas of freedom and equality. It not only survived, it expanded and in the process generated great wealth and fueled a strong sense of America’s exceptionalism that many of this nation’s leaders hoped would eventually stretch into the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America.
O’Reilly could have just as easily used the occasion to highlight the theme of racial progress celebrated in the First Lady’s speech – a speech that takes the audience from slave builders to a White House now occupied by an African-American family. That O’Reilly failed to do so points to the limits of who he believes is qualified to tell this nation’s story. In failing to embrace Obama’s understanding of America’s exceptionalism, O’Reilly undercuts the story of ‘slavery to freedom’ that constitutes the intellectual and cultural space in which many black families frame their histories and their relationship to the nation. O’Reilly seems to be unable to comprehend a narrative of the United States that places slavery at its very center, even within a broader narrative that is ultimately celebratory.
Unfortunately, O’Reilly’s characterization of slaves as “well-fed” places him in a long line of slavery apologists. Southern slaveowners celebrated their “peculiar institution” on the grounds that their property was well cared for and civilized. After the Civil War, former slaveowners waxed poetic about the benevolent relationships established with their slaves that were destroyed by “Yankee” invaders and a corrupt federal government that sought to remake their world during Reconstruction. Images of benevolent slaveowners remained popular throughout the twentieth century in the form of bestselling novels and popular Hollywood movies such as Gone With the Wind.
Only in the last few decades have our history textbooks begun to move past this deeply embedded and dangerous trope. As late as the 1970s, the state of Virginia still used the popular textbook, Virginia: History, Government, Geography by Francis B. Simkins, Spotswood H. Jones, and Sidman P. Poole, first published in 1957.
The chapter on slavery is titled, “How the Negroes Lived under Slavery” and shows a well-dressed African-American family on board a ship shaking hands with a white man, who is presumed to be the family’s new owner. Here is how it describes slavery:
A feeling of strong affection existed between masters and slaves in a majority of Virginia homes. . . The house servants became almost as much a part of the planter’s family circle as its white members. . . The Negroes were always present at family weddings. They were allowed to look on at dances and other entertainments . . . A strong tie existed between slave and master because each was dependent on the other. . . The slave system demanded that the master care for the slave in childhood, in sickness, and in old age. The regard that master and slaves had for each other made plantation life happy and prosperous. Life among the Negroes of Virginia in slavery times was generally happy. The Negroes went about in a cheerful manner making a living for themselves and for those for whom they worked. . . But they were not worried by the furious arguments going on between Northerners and Southerners over what should be done with them. In fact, they paid little attention to these arguments.
Such characterizations dismiss the horrors of slavery and the subsequent struggles for racial equality that persist to this day. These books were published to turn back the tide of civil rights and the historical narrative that helped to fuel it.
The First Lady hoped to impart some sense of what living in the White House has meant to her family. That involves reminding the nation of who helped to build it regardless of how difficult it is for some to accept.
And that is Bill O’Reilly’s “history thing.”