Slaves Built the White House and Capitol - See the Records
Press Release · Wednesday, December 10, 2008
National Archives holdings include extensive documentation showing that slaves built the White House and Capitol
(On public display at the National Archives Museum, Washington, DC, 1/12-25/2009; and 2/12001-2/28/2001).
Two of Washington, DC's most famous buildings, the White House and the United States Capitol, were built in large part by enslaved African Americans. National Archives holdings include wage rolls, promissory notes, and vouchers that document the work done by slaves on these two historic structures.
In 1791 Pierre L'Enfant, who planned the City of Washington, leased African American slaves from their masters to clear the sites for the "President's House" and the Capitol. Once the land was cleared, Washington's three-man Board of Commissioners, who oversaw the new city's construction, tried to recruit laborers from Europe and America to build the two structures. Unable to find as many workers as they needed, the commissioners turned to African Americans slaves. Most slaves hauled building materials and sawed lumber, but others performed skilled labor such as carpentry, stonecutting, and bricklaying. A list of persons who were employed to build the Capitol and White House, between 1795 and 1800, contains 122 names labeled "Negro hire."
Wage rolls preserved at the National Archives list the African Americans who worked on these projects as carpenters and brickmakers. One such roll is a 1795 "Carpenter's Roll" for the President's House. The document lists four slaves, "Tom, Peter, Ben, [and] Harry," two of whom were slaves owned by James Hoban, the architect of the President's House. The rolls record the number of days worked and the rate at which each person was paid. A slave's wages were paid directly to the slave owner who signed the rolls as receipt of payment.
A second document is a 1795 promissory note from the commissioners to Jasper M. Jackson for the hire of his slave, "Negro Dick at the Capitol, from 1st April to 1st July 1795, 3 Months, at 5 Dollars per Month." Little is known about the lives of the men who, like "Negro Dick," built the Capitol. Most of them lived in shacks on the building site, where they received medical care, food, and occasionally, a small incentive payment above what was given to their masters.
These two documents that are on display are among many from the holdings of the National Archives that highlight the contributions of African Americans to the building of Washington, DC.
This page was last reviewed on March 1, 2021.
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