'A house built by slaves': How accurate was Michelle Obama's statement?

Fox News host Bill O'Reilly offered a fact-check of sorts of Mrs. Obama's comment that she 'wake[s] up every day in a house that was built by slaves,' a statement that historians say is true.

Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters
U.S. first lady Michelle Obama speaks at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on Monday. Fox News host Bill O'Reilly offered a fact-check of sorts of Mrs. Obama's comment that "I wake up every day in a house that was built by slaves," on his show Tuesday. The role of enslaved African Americans in building the White House and other early parts of Washington, DC has been endorsed by historians.

Michelle Obama’s stark invocation of the role of slaves in building the White House in a speech at the Democratic National Convention on Monday was the focus of a fact check of sorts by political commentator Bill O’Reilly.

Mr. O’Reilly, the host of Fox News’s “The O’Reilly Factor,” said Mrs. Obama had raised a “fascinating” point about American history when she said “I wake up every day in a house that was built by slaves,” but then seemed intent on softening the comment’s impact.

“Slaves that worked there were well fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government, which stopped hiring slave labor in 1802,” he said on a segment of the show on Tuesday. “So, Michelle Obama is essentially correct in citing slaves as builders of the White House, but there were others working as well.”

O’Reilly likened himself to a history teacher, but his comments raised a question. With the role of enslaved African Americans in constructing the White House endorsed by historians, was a qualification for Obama’s statement really necessary?

The White House Historical Association notes that after efforts to recruit laborers from Europe to build what became the nation’s capital were unsuccessful, city commissioners “turned to African American[s] – enslaved and free – to provide the bulk of labor that built the White House, the United States Capitol and other early government buildings.”

In what O’Reilly appears to be referencing, the association notes that “the slaves joined a work force that included local white laborers and artisans from Maryland and Virginia as well as immigrants from Ireland, Scotland and other European nations.”

Some researchers said Obama’s comments, which contrasted “generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation” with the first lady’s daughters, “two beautiful intelligent black young women – playing with their dogs on the White House lawn” were a necessary wakeup call for the role slavery played in the early years of the presidency.

“I'm glad that she mentioned the role of enslaved Americans at the White House because she presented a larger audience with a history that most people are not being taught in our schools," Clarence Lusane, author of “The Black History of the White House” and chair of Howard University's political science department, told The Washington Post.

Professor Lusane noted in a 2011 interview with C-SPAN that many of America’s early leaders had an often-coercive relationship with the people they kept as slaves, the Post reports. President George Washington at one point attempted to organize the kidnapping of Oney Judge, a woman he had enslaved who managed to escape.

Ms. Judge, who was living as a free woman in New Hampshire at the time, successfully avoiding the kidnapping attempt and later learned to read, living into her 80s, according to Lusane.

The fact-checking site Politifact noted in 2009 that a report issued four years earlier by a Congressional task force shed further light on the often-brutal working conditions that surround the construction of Washington, DC. According to the report, the city commissioners issued "385 payments to slave owners between 1795 and 1801 for ’Negro hire,’ a euphemism for the yearly rental of slaves,” Politifact reports:

Slave crews also toiled at the marble and sandstone quarries that provided the stone to face the structure — lonely, grueling work with bleak living conditions in rural Virginia and elsewhere. "Keep the yearly hirelings at work from sunrise to sunset — particularly the Negroes," the commissioners wrote to quarry operator William O'Neale in 1794.

Mr. O’Reilly referenced the payments cited in the Congressional report on his show Tuesday, adding a comment that, “There were no illegal immigrants at that time. If you could make it here, you could stay here.”

On Twitter, the conservative commentator Michelle Malkin went further, arguing that since the White House underwent renovations between 1949 and 1951, “Michelle Obama stretched the truth.”

But Professor Lusane notes that the role of enslaved African Americans in building the White House isn’t reflected anywhere at the building itself, unlike other historical sites, he told the Post. The first lady’s comments helped shed light on that history for a wider audience, he said.

“What struck me was that her remarks were unique in terms of the perspective of a woman of color," he told the Post. ”It's hard to imagine someone who was not a woman of color giving that particular speech. She did it in a way that was perfectly toned, and she talks about the country addressing issues of difference without exacerbating those issues. Its a history lesson that is so valuable.”

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