Thousands of people visit Washington DC every year to marvel at the landmarks and take in the historical significance of the capitol — especially the infamous home of the President. Yet it’s still not a well-known fact that many enslaved black Americans were forced to play an integral role in building and maintaining the White House early on. This unacknowledged part of DC history is something that many have taken issue with, and it’s this particular void that Associated Press writer Jesse J. Holland plans to fill with the release of his new book, Invisibles: The Untold Story of African American Slaves in the White House.
The book gives readers a glimpse into the lives of the women and men who not only worked in building the home but also those who were owned by and served the first 10 presidents – such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Holland’s vision for the text is to spark interest and inform readers about who these slaves were, what they were like, and what happened to them if they were able to escape from bondage; by including firsthand accounts, records, and presidential memoirs.
For years many scholars and historians have pushed for greater recognition of the role our enslaved ancestors played in building the capitol. In 2005, Congress appointed a task force to research the subject, and released records showing 385 payments between 1795 and 1801 for “Negro hire” (a term for the the yearly rental of slaves); which proved that at least hundreds were involved in the process. There were also countless others who served as butlers, cooks, and maids.
Holland previously published a book under a similar theme, entitled Black Men Built the Capitol: Discovering African-American History In and Around Washington, D.C. In a recent interview with Smithsonian Mag, he explained his motivation for writing his latest work:
“I was covering politics for the AP back when Obama was doing his first presidential campaign around the country. He decided that weekend to go back home to Chicago. I was on the press bus, sitting in Chicago outside of Obama’s townhouse, trying to think about what book to write next. I wanted to do a follow-up book to my first—which was published in 2007—but I was struggling to come up with a coherent idea. As I was sitting there in Chicago, covering Obama, it hit me: We had always talked about the history of Obama possibly becoming the first black president of the United States, but I knew Obama couldn’t have been the first black man to live in the White House. Washington, D.C. is a southern city and almost all mansions in the South were constructed and run by African Americans. So I said to myself, I want to know who these African American slaves were who lived in the White House.”