PHILADELPHIA — On Monday night in a widely praised speech here at the Democratic National Convention, first lady Michelle Obama made a poignant observation about her life and race in America: “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves, and I watch my daughters — two beautiful, intelligent, black young women — playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.”
Within minutes, PolitiFact confirmed the factual rigor of Obama’s claim. The New York Times also did a write-up: “Yes, Slaves Did Help Build the White House.”
On his Tuesday night program, however, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly felt he still had something to add to the conversation. “Slaves did participate in the construction of the White House,” O’Reilly said, noting that “free blacks, whites and immigrants also worked on the massive building.”
Then: “Slaves that worked there were well fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government,” the host said.
Thanks, O’Reilly, for the context.
For even more context, try Jesse J. Holland’s book “The Invisibles: The Untold Story of African American Slaves in the White House,” which notes, “With the invention of steam shovels still several years away, these slaves dug for the clay on site with hand shovels, working day and night to get the raw material to the skilled brick makers and at the same time, opening up ground on the site for the space that would become the White House’s foundation and cellar.”
“Digging up clay was unskilled, tedious and backbreaking work,” writes Holland. As to the “decent” lodging, Holland notes that a “barn” was built for the workers.
Is that “decent” lodging?
“It wouldn’t be a leap to say the living conditions in a barn were much less comfortable than in a house,” Holland said in an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog.
A “steady diet of pork and bread” was provided to slaves in quarries supplying stone for construction of the president’s house, according to Holland’s book, though the author cautions against any conclusion that these folks were “well fed.”
“It’s hard to think they got all the food they wanted when they wanted it and all the food they needed when they needed it,” said Holland. “What does ’well fed’ mean? When you don’t have a choice about what you eat, are you well fed?”
Presumably, O’Reilly would have scrapped the segment if only Obama had said, “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by well-fed and decently lodged slaves, and I watch my daughters — two beautiful, intelligent, black young women — playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.”
Those inclined to trust O’Reilly on matters of White House history should consider the time that his book “Killing Lincoln” botched a key fact on the building.