Friday, December 5, 2008

Obama, Slavery & the White House- "Bottom Rail on Top"

Artist rendering of a shackled slave coffle being driven by the US Capitol

Slaves helped build the White House, both when it was built and later after it was burned down by the British during the War of 1812. Slaves helped build the US Capitol. One slave, Philip Reid, helped in the creation of the 12,000 lb bronze statue that now adorns the dome of the legislative building--the ironically enough named, Statue of Freedom. Slaves were sold and labored all throughout Washington DC. Some 12 American presidents owned slaves. Slavery was not abolished in Washington DC until 1862. And at one time, the mere inviting of a black man to the White House--from fiery abolitionists like Frederick Douglas to accomadationists like Booker T. Washington--was a source of controversy. President Woodrow Wilson not only had a private screening of D.W. Griffith's infamous Birth of a Nation in the White House--which depicted blacks as bestial rapists and the Ku Klux Klan as gallant heroes--but declared the film to be "like writing history with lightning....And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true."

Now, in just over a month, a black family is set to call the White House home. Even a cynic like me has to admit, that's probably a bit more than just symbolic. That's historic.

It was one of the first thoughts I had when I dwelt on the many meanings behind the triumph of Barack Obama. I first heard it mentioned publicly by Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano in a Democracy Now! interview the day following the election. "The White House will be his house in the time coming," said. "But this White House was built by black slaves. And I’d like, I hope, that he never, never forgets this." And it wasn't the only symbolic meaning that could be gleaned from history. Bill Moyers that Friday after the election pointed to a St. Louis rally Obama had held weeks earlier, that had drew a record 100,000 people. Lost in all of the election coverage, was that the rally was held on the steps of an old building that was once a courthouse--where slaves were auctioned and sold. In 1846, a slave named Dred Scott and his wife Harriett would appear on those courthouse steps to appeal their bondage. And though they would lose, their later Supreme Court appeal--Dred Scott decision--would become a part of history, fueling abolitionist sentiment towards a looming Civil War, eventual Emancipation, a century more of Jim Crow repression and the many acts of resistance that would shape the meaning of liberty, equality and democracy in America.

Barack Obama is interesting in that the only part of his lineage that experienced this drama was white. The other part, while dealing with the repression of British colonialism, can't point to a long history of American bondage, lynching, Jim Crow segregation and the dark sufferings of the Black Atlantic. Yet Obama chose to identify with that culture at an early age: partly by choice, and possibly partly by necessity--as America tends to baptize everyone into its racial landscape. And he chose to marry into that legacy through Michelle Obama, and consequently gave birth to children who are descended from it. And it is this complex drama of blackness that will call the White House home on Jan. 20th.

There's a memorable incident during the Civil War, where a black runaway slave who joined up with the Union army, catches sight of his former master--now a captured Confederate soldier. The slave saunters up to his previous owner, who sits stunned at this seeming reversal of fortune. "Hello massa," the ex-slave greets cheerfully, "Bottom rail on top this time."

Full article on topic below:

Slaves helped build White House, U.S. Capitol

By Susan Roesgen and Aaron Cooper

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In January, President-elect Barack Obama and his family will make history, becoming the first African-American first family to move into the White House -- a house with a history of slavery. In fact, the legacy of American presidents owning slaves goes all the way back to George Washington.

Twelve American presidents owned slaves and eight of them, starting with Washington, owned slaves while in office. Almost from the very start, slaves were a common sight in the executive mansion. A list of construction workers building the White House in 1795 includes five slaves - named Tom, Peter, Ben, Harry and Daniel -- all put to work as carpenters. Other slaves worked as masons in the government quarries, cutting the stone for early government buildings, including the White House and U.S. Capitol. According to records kept by the White House Historical Association, slaves often worked seven days a week -- even in the hot and humid Washington summers.

In 1800, John Adams was the first president to live in the White House, moving in before it was finished. Adams was a staunch opponent of slavery, and kept no slaves. Future presidents, however, didn't follow his lead. Thomas Jefferson, who succeeded Adams, wrote that slavery was an "assemblage of horrors" and yet he brought his slaves with him. Early presidents were expected to pay their household expenses themselves, and many who came from the so-called "slave states" simply brought their slaves with them.

Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant all owned slaves but not during their time in office. James Madison, Jefferson's successor, held slaves all of his life including while he was in office. During the war of 1812 Madison's slaves helped remove material from the White House shortly before the British burned the building. Michelle Obama uncovers slaves in her family .

In 1865 one of Madison's former slaves, Paul Jennings, wrote the first White House memoir: "A Colored Man's Reminiscences of Life in the White House." In the book, Jennings called Madison "one of the best men that ever lived" and said Madison "never would strike a slave, although he had over one hundred; neither would he allow an overseer to do it."

There were other presidents who treated their slaves less kindly.

James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, John Tyler, James K. Polk and Zachary Taylor all owned slaves while they were in office. The last of these, President Taylor, said owning slaves was a Constitutional right and he said slave-owners like himself would "appeal to the sword if necessary" to keep them. The Civil War, of course, put that opinion to the test.

Now, the Obamas are moving into the White House.

"The apple cart has been turned over here when you have the Obamas -- the first African-American couple -- now actually management and you are having in some cases white Americans serving them," says presidential historian Doug Brinkley.

Michelle Obama learned this year that one of her great-great grandfathers was a slave who worked on a rice plantation in South Carolina. She says finding that part of her past uncovered both shame and pride and what she calls the tangled history of this country.

For many, the historic election on November 4 marked a new beginning.

Though Michelle Obama's ancestors had to come through the ordeal of slavery, "Her children are sleeping in the room of presidents," said Brinkley. "It's a very great and hopeful sign."